CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
Creating Equitable and Curiosity-Filled Classrooms through Students’ Questions
Curiosity can have a profound impact on how students learn and how they perceive themselves as learners. The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is a simple yet powerful strategy that deliberately teaches students how to ask and use their own questions and creates a space for inquiry-based learning. And, as a result, the QFT piques curiosity and can help students discover they have questions to which they want to find the answers. Boston University education researcher Shelby Clark has studied the QFT and has found that, “Initial results indicate that the QFT has a significant positive impact on students’ curiosity.”
The QFT creates a more equitable learning culture where all students are able to explore their own curiosity during a structured learning experience. Since Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana first introduced the strategy to the classroom in their book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, there has been an incredible response from the field of education. Over 250,000 educators around the world have used the strategy in new and innovative ways across all grade levels and subject areas.
During the QFT, students:
- Generate questions collaboratively while following the four rules for producing questions.
- Do rigorous work with their questions as they identify questions as either closed-ended (can be answered with a yes, no, or one word) or open-ended (cannot be answered with a yes, no, or one word). They discuss advantages and disadvantages to different types of questions and how the framing of a question may affect the information that is elicited. This can be a revelation for many individuals, and they work with their questions as they change one closed-ended question to become open-ended and one open-ended to closed-ended.
- Prioritize their questions based on instruction from the teacher. Educators provide a lens for students to analyze their questions and think critically about which questions will be most beneficial as they move into next steps. For instance, if an educator plans for the class to use their questions to support a research project, prioritization instructions may be for students to choose, “three questions that you will use to guide your initial research.” Or, the educator may opt for students to choose their, “three most important questions.”
- Reflect on their questions and their experience with the QFT as they move into next steps.
Letting Students’ Minds Flow
Educators often share that the QFT engages students who do not typically participate in class. The rules for producing questions and the steps of the QFT are essential for nurturing this space. They are able to contribute and ask questions freely without worrying about other students evaluating questions or feeling the urge to answer questions as they are produced. The QFT allows questions and curiosity to flow, investigating and answering the questions comes later. As an 8th grader from Eastern Kentucky stated while reflecting on the QFT, “Sometimes, I have a lot of questions, and this way I can express those without being judged… I get to learn a lot more.” Another 8th grader at a Title I school in Austin, Texas offered a similar sentiment when he said, “I like creating as many questions as you can in a time limit without being judged because it lets my mind flow.” Both reflections provide insight into the confidence students feel while generating questions when they know there will be no judgment by others.
Students work collaboratively during question generation, and one student’s question may spark another’s thinking and give rise to a new line of inquiry. Every single question is recorded so students have the opportunity to build off one another while crafting their own questions. For many students, seeing their own question written down exactly as stated can be transformative. When they see their own question written down verbatim, it respects their way of framing a question and builds their confidence to ask more questions.
A Simple Thank You
Another aspect of the QFT that promotes a more equitable learning culture is an emphasis on acknowledging student contributions equally. As members of the class participate throughout the QFT, share their thoughts on the value of different types of questions, and reflect on the process, educators respond with a simple, “thank you.” By acknowledging each contribution the same, educators avoid conveying different messages to students about the quality of their contribution.
Transforming Classroom Inquiry
Students are able to drive their own learning by asking questions, and as one teacher from Lexington, MA shared, “[The QFT] puts them in the driver’s seat, and the questions they came up with are all the ones I would have come up with. And now as drivers it’s like ‘let’s go find the answers to OUR questions.’” Educators are able to design the QFT flexibly to address their specific teaching and learning goals for units and lessons while carving out space for students to drive the learning process. On the west coast at Mt. San Antonio College, a community college that primarily serves Latino students, Professor Sun Ezzell saw firsthand how the QFT can engage all students when, “a student who hadn't said a word all summer led his group in identifying open and closed [questions].”
The affective changes students report are remarkable. Chloe, a student from Eastern Kentucky shared, “Now I feel real smart when I start asking questions.” A high school student in a summer remedial program in Boston used the QFT and similarly found that, “the way it made me feel was smart because I was asking good questions and giving good answers.”
Being able to formulate questions is an important skill for critical thinking, learning, and innovating. The rules and the steps of the QFT can cultivate an engaging learning environment that instills in students a question-asking mindset. This is a strategy teachers can learn today and use tomorrow to help every student hone their own inquiry skills. Through the QFT, students begin to view themselves as agents of curiosity and they feel comfortable posing questions during the QFT and in the classroom. They begin to describe themselves as smart and intelligent, and just as importantly they see their role as active learners and contributors in the classroom.