The One Who Formulates the Questions Owns the Learning

A 2012 article in The Boston Globe, showcased a high school classroom with students  brainstorming questions about a piece of literature. In the classroom was Dan Rothstein, co-founder of the Right Question Institute – a nonprofit that promotes the idea that asking good questions is an important life skill. Rothstein was in the classroom to observe the impact of questioning to drive learning, development, creativity, and innovation.

So much of school is for students to answer teacher created questions. Check out a few of the popular question stems presented in the 2018 New York State ELA Exam for 7th graders:

What is the best definition of . . .

What does the description of the setting in paragraph X reveal about  . . .

Which idea best supports a theme of the story?

Which quotation best supports the central idea of the story?

Which idea would be most important to include in a summary of the article?

Which sentence from the article best shows the author’s point of view?

How does paragraph X contribute to the excerpt’s structure?

What does the metaphor mean in the sentence?

But what if we asked students to ask their own questions? How does the ownership of learning change?

As Rothstein argues, “The rigorous process of learning to develop and ask questions offers students the invaluable opportunity to become independent thinkers and self-directed learners.”

Rothstein and Santana have their own Question Formulation Technique (QFT) –  four rules for producing questions:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to judge, discuss, edit, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it was asked.
  4. Change any statements into questions.

Before the students begin developing questions, the teacher will design a focus for the questions by theme or topic. Students can formulate questions independently or in groups. Once questions are generated, students can

1. Classify questions as either open-ended or closed-ended

2. Rewrite an open-ended question so it was closed-ended and vice versa

3. Prioritize their top three questions

As Forbes journalist, Steve Denning writes,  “The true goal of education is inspiring students with a lifelong capacity and passion for learning, it is at least as important that students be able to ask the right question as it is to know the right answer.”

The benefits of QFT include increased participation because students are in charge of their learning by asking questions and processing their understanding. Teachers are facilitators. Rothstein and Santana state, “Teachers can use the QFT at different points: to introduce students to a new unit, to assess students’ knowledge to see what they need to understand better, and even to conclude a unit to see how students can, with new knowledge, set a fresh learning agenda for themselves. The technique can be used for all ages.” Before you begin formulating questions for students to answer about the most recent book they read, why not let them develop their own questions and illustrate their thinking about the text.


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