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Who Wants to Know? Use Student Questions to Drive Learning

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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An illustration of a question mark with a car driving around the top curve.

Martin Luther King, Jr. considered this to be life's most persistent and urgent question: "What are you doing for others?" As we approach the holiday that honors his legacy, here's another question worth pondering: How many of your students know how to ask persistent and urgent questions of their own?

Knowing how to formulate a good question -- and having the courage to ask it -- is a skill with profound social justice implications. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, founders of the Right Question Institute, first became interested in questioning techniques when they were working with parents in a low-income community. Parents told them they didn't participate in their children's education because they didn't know what to ask.

That was more than 20 years ago. By now, Rothstein and Santana have taught question-formulation techniques everywhere from homeless shelters to adult literacy classes to community health centers. Patients take a more active role in their own care, it turns out, when they know how to ask doctors better questions. And people who have felt disenfranchised because of language barriers or low literacy levels can reengage as citizens by learning how to ask questions that matter to them.

In their important and accessible book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, the co-authors outline a simple but powerful approach to put classroom questions where they belong: with students. Instead of organizing learning around teachers' questions, they suggest letting students' questions drive the learning experience. For many students, this means reconnecting with their innate sense of curiosity and wonder about the world.

The co-authors' Question Formulation Technique is appropriate for any classroom. It unfolds in four steps, typically carried out in small groups of students and in response to a specific focus that the teacher has introduced:

  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.

In a recent article for Education Leadership, "The Right Answers," Rothstein and Santana describe teachers using their technique to rekindle curiosity in classrooms ranging from elementary to high school, and in subjects as diverse as math, science, and social studies.

I'd argue that their approach belongs in the toolkit of any teacher implementing project-based learning. Inquiry is supposed to provide the oxygen for PBL. By starting with questions that students want to answer, PBL creates a need to know. When projects work well, that authentic inquiry is what delivers higher levels of engagement and puts students on the path to deeper learning.

But what if students don't exhibit a strong "need to know" in response to an entry event or driving question? What if they don't launch into a project with a host of questions that they are burning to answer? What if that supposedly captivating driving question is met with....silence?

The problem might be that the project focus doesn't connect with students' interests. Or, it might have to do with students forgetting what it means to be an active learner. If their prior experience in school has been passive, if their previous experience with questions has been limited to responding to what teachers ask, they may need a refresher course in curiosity.

Along with the excellent resources from Rothstein and Santana, you can learn more about questioning strategies in A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Author Warren Berger shows how artful questioning leads to better thinking in a range of endeavors, from business to social activism. On an accompanying blog, Berger posts "beautiful questions" posed by readers.

Recent examples that might get your students talking (and questioning): What if pizza was good for you? Why can't the classroom be a coffee shop? What would happen if teenagers believed they deeply mattered to the world around them? As a quick write or warm-up for a PBL experience, you might have students submit their own beautiful questions to the author.

As students get more confident asking questions in class, they'll be better prepared to take their questioning attitude into the world. PBL often creates opportunities for students to engage with community members and experts. Make sure students know how to frame those conversations with the questions that they care about answering.

How do you encourage students to ask questions that matter to them? Please share your strategies in the comments section below.

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Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

Educators who directly experience how such questions impact their learning, almost immediately start asking them in class.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

The questions still reside with the instructor. But to expand the thinking and questioning abilities of students, the questions must reside with the students. I believe that my students need to develop the capability to ask tough and meaningful questions. Some teachers use effective teacher-generated questioning strategies which encourage students to think but not necessarily to become better questioners.

Ahmad Imam's picture

I think every Child has his own world and questions, even it was ridiculous world and silly questions, but there is no child with no questions except in some rare cases of depression, so every teacher must believe that all students have questions and try hard to make them express them, and develop methods that "gradually" prove to students that expressing questions is not bad and help them to learn more.
I mean with gradual methods that the teacher can start with motivating them to express questions like making games that involves this or any other methods, until they realize that this is a good thing and reach the level where they have no fear of questioning and make this normally.

Jesse Pirini's picture
Jesse Pirini
I run www.pencilcase.co.nz a tutoring company in NZ.

Some of the thinking routines that Ron Prichart talks about spring to mind as a good way to get students asking more questions

Whitney Baker's picture

Have been exploring the use of Google Moderator with great success in HS classes. Students create their own questions based on a curricularly aligned topic that I provide. Then, students set out to source and answer each other's questions. GM also neatly provides the means to click on a student's name and view a summary of all of their questions added to a series, or unit. Its really something, I'm amazed at how interested and responsive they are with this medium but as you note, Suzie, they are leading the way which makes all the difference.

I'm keen to take a look at the noted Question Formulation Techniques and try some variations.. ie no answers, edits or stopping - just get as many as you can.

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