For Students, Why the Question is More Important Than the Answer

| October 26, 2012 | 35 Comments
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In a traditional classroom, the teacher is the center of attention, the owner of knowledge and information. Teachers often ask questions of their students to gauge comprehension, but it’s a passive model that relies on students to absorb information they need to reproduce on tests.

What would happen if the roles were flipped and students asked the questions?

That’s the premise of the Right Question Institute and a new book by its co-directors Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. The book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, documents a step-by-step process to help students formulate and prioritize questions about nearly everything.

Coming up with the right question involves vigorously thinking through the problem, investigating it from various angles, turning closed questions into open-ended ones and prioritizing which are the most important questions to get at the heart of the matter.

“We’ve been underestimating how well our kids can think.”

“We’ve been underestimating how well our kids can think.” Rothstein said in a recent discussion on the talk show Forum. “We see consistently that there are three outcomes. One is that students are more engaged. Second, they take more ownership, which for teachers, this is a huge thing. And the third outcome is they learn more – we see better quality work.”

On the teacher’s part, the role becomes more a facilitator than an instructor.

“What happens is the teacher plays a different role,” Santana said. “They lead students into thinking. The process of teaching students to ask their own questions allows teachers to communicate what they need to around curriculum. The difference is that the students are thinking and doing more, rather than the teacher.”

Rothstein and Santana call their method the Question Formulation Technique. The idea is that if students are engaged in deciding what question to answer they will also be invested in discovering the answer. Both teachers and students say the method has been both empowering and difficult. Kids who had long been struggling in school said they felt smart, the authors said.

It’s a bit like the Socratic method flipped on its head. Socrates wandered around Athens asking questions to get at a deeper truth. Since then philosophy and law teachers have used questions as a way to get students to think more deeply, rather than giving them the information directly. The Question Formulation Technique turns that dynamic around and asks the students to come up with the questions that speak to the core of a topic. The quest is for the question, not the answer.

If the concept feels a bit opaque, the book lays out a step-by-step process for guiding reticent students along the Socratic path, even laying out potential road blocks and work-arounds, which were developed over years of trial and error. In the end, students develop higher order thinking skills that will help them make decisions and think for themselves in any situation throughout life. Santana calls these “foundational skills” that are rarely taught formally, even though they are used all the time.

An excerpt of Make Just One Change below lays out rules for students to follow as they produce their first set of questions. The questions are focused around what Rothstein and Santana call the “Question Focus” or “QFocus.” This is a guiding topic for the questions that students should be producing.

Rule 1: Ask As Many Questions as You Can (Gives License to Ask). There are a number of potential stumbling blocks related to this rule, including:

  • Students struggle trying to produce the questions: Give them time to think. Repeat the QFocus and the rules but do not give examples of questions.
  • Students ask for examples: Do not give examples. Repeat: Do not give examples. When you give examples you are setting direction  for the questions. Students need to struggle with this a bit. If they are completely stuck, you can use question starters. For example: “You can start a question with words like what, when or how. Use one of these words to produce a question about [our QFocus].” Question starters will be a good strategy for when students are stuck or when they have produced very few questions.
  • Groups are working at different pace: While some of your small groups will have lots of questions, others will not. This is fine. The work during this exercise should not be judged by the number of questions students produced. If some of your groups are slow in producing questions, just make sure they stay on task by reminding them of the rules.
  • Some students are not participating or one student is producing all the questions: Remind students about the task and the rules. All group members should contribute questions including the scribe. Remind students of this first rule. All questions are welcomed and valued which will allow the reluctant student to participate.

Rule 2: Do Not Stop to Discuss, Judge, or Answer Any Question (Creates Safe Space and Protection). Students want to answer a question as it comes up. This rule says it all: do not stop to answer, judge, or discuss. Let students know that there will be opportunities for discussion and addressing the questions in other steps of the process.

Rule 3: Write Down Every Question Exactly as It Is Stated (Levels the Playing Field So All Questions and Voices Are Respected.) Sometimes it will be difficult for the scribe to keep track of the question and all the words. The challenge is to make sure each question is captured, especially if there’s a flurry of questions. Remind students that the whole group is responsible for each question to be written exactly as it was asked. Group members can help the scribe in remembering and recording all the questions.

Rule 4: Change Any Statement into a Question (Insists on the Discipline of Phrasing, Asking, and Thinking in Questions, Not Statement). Potential challenges that may arise with rule 4 include:

  • Students get off task and start talking: Make sure students stay focused on asking questions. Sometimes you will see students getting off-task — talking or discussing. other times they might think they have asked a question when they have not, using statements or even phrases rather than questions. If you see any of these happening just ask them to change what they were talking about or the statement they wrote into a question.
  • Students are confused about the instructions: Confusion could be a result of requesting students to work differently. Repeat the QFocus and the rules to clarify but do not overexplain.
  • The QFocus is not working: It is important to have a backup plan if the QFocus doesn’t work. Plan alternative ways to present the same QFocus. Do not try to explain or give information about the QFocus but give the instructions in a different way. “I want you to ask questions about [alternative QFocus].” Explore with students what is it that they don’t understand; this will allow you to restate the instructions in a way they understand.
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  • http://twitter.com/shnhealy Shaun Healy

    If we tracked the questions our students are asking I wonder what this would show us about our own teaching?

    • http://twitter.com/hentieTom Hentie Tomkinson

      Very good question..as I have experienced in some of my lessons..makes you re-think how you plan and present learning material

  • Jim

    “Awareness of the problem” from the elaboration phase of Professor Feuerstein’s metacognitive theory of thinking/learning – is essentially what the “learning to ask questions” theme here is about

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  • http://twitter.com/hentieTom Hentie Tomkinson

    Keeping track of questions: http://www.todaysmeet.com very useful

  • Anke

    Thank you for this arcticle. There is definitely nothing more important in L&D than that!!! I use a 3 step process to teach asking questions: 1. Sum up all information 2. Find Out all about your hypthesis you built spontaneusly and 3. Questions to close the Gap between missing information and the hypothesis come up themselves. and the Form of questions become irrelevant as curiosity will be more important.

  • http://twitter.com/theASIDEblog theASIDEblog

    We could not agree more. See our post on the QFT from September 27. We’ve used this technique in the classroom with good results. http://theasideblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/design-thinking-for-students-question.html

  • Alice Moore

    This is called inquiry and the pedagogy has been around for decades. One of the differences I recognize in this article is that, with an inquiry based approach, you surround your students with the dilemma, phenomena, issue, material, so that they cannot help but be curious and ask questions. If the questions are not coming, it’s usually because their curiosity has not been sparked. Children are born curious and it’s our job as educators to keep that alive. Thank you for writing about the importance of student questions. Love the idea of using Today’s Meet to keep track of the questions- brilliant!

    • richcatt

      Children are (born) curious: yes; as educators we can lead our horses to water, and then our job is to give them salt!

  • Mary Anne Hipp

    Very interesting concept. I have shared it with others. I agree with Shaun that it might reveal some information about our teaching.

  • Sara

    I was taught introductory college physics at UC Davis (Physics 7 series) using a very ” similar teaching philosophy. I can tell you it does NOT work in that context. Perhaps this method sparks intellectual curiosity in younger students or with other subjects. However, in my own experience, this method actually sets up the instructor as an obstacle to learning, due to refusal to answer questions or make “judgements” on which student’s solution is correct.

    What naturally happens is that smarter students (or those who had taken traditional physics courses before coming to Davis) take pity on their bewildered peers and start to explain the lesson to them. Then the smart students are rebuked for not allowing their confused friends to “make their own discoveries”. Testing and assessment becomes nearly impossible because when students spend lessons sitting around in groups, asking questions that no one is allowed to answer, they become blindsided when they are expected to answer exam questions.

    Indeed, we are all born curious, but educators should recall that it took centuries, even millennia, of scholars building upon the works of those that came before them to achieve any modern science or math course. When you force students to step back and reinvent the wheel among themselves in the classroom, you simply waste precious time that could be spent giving them a richer and more detailed understanding of the material. This doesn’t actually “develop higher order thinking skills that will help them make decisions and think for themselves in any situation throughout life”: I hope I never have to have a business meeting where everyone must spend an hour asking questions before anyone is permitted to offer a solution.

    I apologize for the very long comment, but I and many other veterans of UC Davis’s disastrous physics 7 program feel very passionate about this method. I implore any STEM instructor to focus on developing students’ technical skills rather than expanding their “creativity” (i.e. ability to BS and offer problems instead of solutions).

    • Carolyn

      I can totally envision the scenario you described and see why it must have been so frustrating. I think that would be an example of a misapplication of this idea. Maybe if the groups were brainstorming lab experiments to try it would work, and then the instructor could offer some direction as to whether those experiments could actually be done with the available resources, but when it has to do with known solutions/information that would be awfully frustrating for all. I come from a Humanities background, but I also enjoy the sciences and would totally feel the same way if I sat in on a class that was facilitated like that.

    • ChipsAhoyMcCoy

      ¿So what came before the big bang?

  • megnition

    This is wonderful, but surprising in that it seems to stop short with helping students evaluate their questions. Identifying Bloom’s taxonomy within their questioning can be very valuable in helping them move beyond simple remembering or understanding level questioning of who/what/when/where.

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  • http://twitter.com/RightQuestion Right Question

    Thank you all for your comments, honored to be featured here and to be learning from you! @twitter-78333823:disqus

  • Barbara Hansen

    This is a very good idea. Creative thinking is always welcome. However, you have to be sure that students don’t copy any questions from books. Also, you have to be sure that every student or group doesn’t ask the same question. I have found that students like to ask questions of each other, too. You can almost form teams and make it a game. The group idea is really good, but you have to make sure you involve everyone.

  • Darren Elves

    I agree with the notion that this is ‘inquiry’ learning. For me, the only thing that I would add is that it covers a part or a few parts of the inquiry process that we put our students and ourselves through when we are engaged in a learning journey. I am currently doing my Master’s work around this very notion of student questioning and more specifically how do we truly empower the learners to construct their own learning opportunities from the outset. I have begun by teaching the young learners (Grade 2s) in my class the framework of the QFT and currently the students are in the midst of exploring their fourth Qfocus. I can say unequivocally that the QFT was exactly what the doctor ordered when it came to supporting the learning possibilities with these curious minds. Although we do and will spend time reviewing, discussing, even judging the questions once they are generated, the real impact of using the QFT will really be seen over time as they become more proficient with using the framework to support their independent, small group and whole class learning.

    I invite you to take a look at what this looks and sounds like a bit through the lens of the student: http://mrelves.wordpress.com/

  • Jordan

    I totally agree with everything you’re saying here. I am a freshman in college and we’ve been focusing a lot of attention on this topic of “Inquiry” in my English class. I believe more kids would succeed in school if they had some say in the curriculum (or just in class) because there would be a higher level of participation and they would feel more important instead of just feeling like a backdrop. In class we’ve been focusing more on the process of writing rather than the final product, which has helped me a great deal. So I love your idea of finding questions more than answers. This would definitely lead to more thinking inside the classroom which would effect the decisions students make in everyday life. The only problem I would see with all of this is not every student is going to have the same interests, so some may be more involved in class than others. You’d have to think of a way to get everyone’s attention. I will definitely be passing your post along to my professor and fellow students.

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  • Lavada

    The powerful thing about this strategy is that it is not a philosophy… it is a simple, powerful process that teachers guide their students through within a given time frame to push their thinking and support a community where students learn from each other and are free to ask questions.

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  • MikeSadofsky

    I think Rothstein and Santana have it almost right. But they assume kids don’t know how to ask questions. When was the last time you interacted with a pre-school age kid and thought, “that kid doesn’t ask questions?” They are always asking questions: why, how, when, where, what if, … We look for a break in their questioning.
    Then we send them to school: pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school and they quickly learn to NOT ask questions. They’ve been turned off; they are expected to follow the curriculum and only speak when spoken to.

    At Sudbury Valley School (www.sudval.org) kids are always asking questions AND generally searching out the answers themselves. Our staff, NOT “teachers” facilitate when appropriate and serve to keep the school operating. The kids learn through research, conversation, play, and age mixing. No stress, no grades or tests or examinations, no designated curriculum. Graduates tend to be happy, self satisfied people who compete readily for university positions, jobs, and professional careers.

    What more can one want?

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