Voices in Education

How ‘Just One Change’ in the Classroom can Lead to Greater Student Curiosity

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How many times has a teacher posed, “Are there any questions?” – only to be met with deafening silence from their learners. How often have students understood this question as rhetorical rather than a genuine invitation to articulate their curiosity and wonder in the form of a question? Better yet, how can we cultivate learning environments that authentically value and lead with students’ questions and curiosity rather than hastily elicit them as an afterthought?

Educators want their students to ask questions. Indeed, research has found that students only ask about 1/5th the amount of questions educators would like them to ask. Yet many educators report that it can feel like “pulling teeth” to get their students to ask questions, and other research has found that educators ask about two questions per minute while students ask about two questions per hour. Which students are the ones formulating two questions per hour? One study found that lower income students tend to pose fewer questions at school than their moderate-income counterparts, and another study found that lower achieving students tend to ask fewer questions than their higher achieving peers. Not only are students asking markedly fewer questions than the teacher and significantly fewer questions than teachers would like them to ask, some students are asking fewer questions than their fellow students.

How can education remedy this feeling of “pulling teeth” and actualize a vision of all students asking their own questions and classrooms brimming with curiosity? One way is by deliberately teaching students how to ask their own questions.


The Question Formulation Technique

The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) , a strategy first described by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana in their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. The book describes a simple yet powerful strategy supporting the concept that students learning how to formulate their own questions is one of the most essential skills for learning.  

At the beginning of the QFT, the educator shares the four rules students will follow while formulating questions:

1) Ask as many questions as you can

2) Do not stop to discuss, answer, or judge any questions

3) Write down every question exactly as stated

4) Change any statement into a question 

The rules help to create an equitable, constructive space free of judgment so students can ask their questions as they percolate.

Students discuss what may be challenging about following the four rules and the educators reminds students that it is their job to hold themselves and their peers accountable for following the rules. And, one of the roles of the educator/facilitator is to remind students to follow the rules while generating questions. Beyond the QFT, there will be time to investigate, dig deeper into questions, and even answer them, but the QFT itself is a time devoted to asking, thinking about, and understanding the value of questions.

Adding the QFocus

Next, the educator provides students a Question Focus (QFocus), a prompt or stimulus for students to ask questions about. The QFocus can be anything—a picture or photograph, a short video clip, a demonstration or experiment, a phrase, the cover of a book—as long as it is not a question. The educator should think critically during the QFT planning process about what kinds of questions students may ask as they respond to the QFocus and how these questions will dovetail into the next steps of the lesson or unit. 

Once students are presented the QFocus, they: 

1) Formulate their own questions while following the four rules

2) Identify different types of questions (i.e. open-ended and closed-ended) and they name advantages and disadvantages of each type of question

3) Reword two questions and learn how the phrasing of a question may elicit different information

4) Prioritize questions based on instructions the educator provides (e.g. Select your three most important questions)

5) Discuss next steps with the educator as more details are shared about how students will use their questions going forward

6) Reflect on the process and the new knowledge they co-constructed simply through asking questions (e.g. What did you learn? How did you learn? What was helpful about this process? What would have made this process more helpful for you?)


Encouraging Students to Become Curious, Engaged Learners

Through using the QFT, students hone their question formulation skills and become more curious, self-directed learners. These developing skills and learning traits extend beyond the QFT—research has found that high school students who learn the QFT are more curious, divergent thinking, engaged learners, and an action study discovered that five times as many kindergarten students ask on-topic questions as compared to their peers who did not learn the QFT. As one teacher from Ohio shared, “The engagement and curiosity from the QFT just explodes into every other aspect of the classroom.”

Even the earliest learners begin to make new connections about questions and sharpen their ability to effectively inquire—one kindergarten teacher in Pike County, Kentucky used the QFT while teaching students about “question words” (e.g. who, what, where, when, and why). The teacher, Sheila Varney, shared how after the QFT, students themselves identified how there can be question words other than the 5 w’s and that “is” can be a question word depending on how it is used. Just by asking and working with their questions, students’ thinking on questions became more sophisticated.


An Inquisitive Year Ahead

When reflecting on the question “why do we ask questions,” Ayaka, a first grader from just outside Detroit, Michigan responded, “so we can be curious about what we are learning and want to know more.” As the new school year begins, think about how teaching your students how to ask their own questions can help foster thinking, learning, and newfound curiosity. Emerging research continues to find that curiosity is critically important for learning, and a recent study from the University of Michigan found that “the promotion of curiosity may be a valuable intervention target to foster early academic achievement, with particular advantage for children in poverty.” To make obsolete the rhetorical, “are there any questions?” and to facilitate more student curiosity, wonderment, and equitable learning this academic year, use the QFT or other pedagogies, strategies, or practices to teach students how to ask their own questions.

Andrew P. Minigan

Andrew P. Minigan Right Question Institute’s (RQI) Director of Strategy Twitter: @AndrewRQI

Andrew P. Minigan is the Right Question Institute’s (RQI) Director of Strategy for the Education Program. He leads the John Templeton Foundation funded Million Classrooms Campaign. Through the work of the campaign and by learning with educators in the field, he has helped to scale up a pedagogical innovation on a global level. Now, students across all grade levels around the world are improving their own question formulation skills with a simple yet powerful strategy.

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