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This simple change can help students become better thinkers

Usually, it’s the teacher who supplies the questions that students should answer. Dan Rothstein shows how powerful learning can be when students come up with the questions themselves.

The math lesson on variables began with a simple prompt.

As Dan Rothstein, executive director of the Right Question Institute, tells the story: “The teacher presented the following equation: 24 = (smiley face) + (smiley face) + (smiley face).” Then, she asked her students to think of as many questions as they could about the equation. What did the students want to know about this expression? What were they curious about?

The rules that she gave her students were simple, Rothstein says: (1) Ask as many questions as you can. (2) Do not stop to judge, discuss, or answer the questions. (3) Write down every question exactly as stated. (4) Change any statements into questions.

With these rules established, the students began generating their questions. The first few were fairly straightforward: Why is the “24” first? What do the smiley faces mean? Why are there three smiley faces?

Then, the questions began to get more sophisticated: Can I put any number for a smiley face? Do the three faces mean something?

“And then question number eight was: Do the numbers have to be the same because the smiley faces are the same?” Rothstein says.


In just a few minutes of forming their own questions, the students had hit upon the key concepts underlying the use of variables in mathematics.

“At this point, the teacher can go home, right? She’s taught variables,” Rothstein jokes. “It’s just extraordinary.”

Something the Internet Can’t Replace

In most classrooms, the teacher supplies the questions that students must answer. Rothstein’s example shows how powerful learning can be when educators have students come up with their own questions to answer.

Years ago, I had the chance to spend most of a day with Stephan Wolfram, the genius thinker behind the knowledge engine, Wolfram Alpha.  After Stephen demonstrated how students can find the answers to most of the traditional questions we ask in school, I became concerned that some teachers would not be happy with what could be interpreted to be the most powerful cheating tool ever invented.

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Stephen’s response was matter-of-fact: “The answers to essentially all of our traditional questions are available on the internet, and search technology will only become more sophisticated. What is not on the internet are the questions. The most important skill to teach students is to develop the most interesting questions.”

This is one of the reasons why Rothstein’s process of teaching students how to develop entire lines of enquiry is so important. Having access to all of the answers in the world from your cell phone will not do you any good if you do not know how to ask the questions that can lead to the answers.

Even without the web as our dominant media, teaching students to develop clear lines of inquiry goes all the way back to Socrates. The role of the teacher is not to give students the answers, but to challenge students to ask the right questions.

(Next page: Not just students asking the questions)

Questions as the Key to Democracy?

Rothstein will be a presenter at the 2017 Building Learning Communities (BLC) conference in Boston July 26-28. I recently had the privilege of speaking with him for a podcast in advance of this event, and he explained the origins of his organization’s Question Formulation Technique.

Several years ago, Rothstein was working for a dropout prevention program, and his role was to work with parents to engage them in their children’s education. When he would ask parents why they didn’t show up to school meetings, events, and parent-teacher conferences, he would hear over and over again: “We don’t go to the schools because we don’t even know what questions to ask.”

Rothstein and his colleague, Luz Santana, realized that not knowing the right questions to ask held people back from participating in a democratic society. So, they developed a process to help people of all ages and backgrounds learn to ask better questions that guide their own learning.

Their Question Formulation Technique (QFT) has been proven to work in a wide range of settings. For instance, it has helped medical patients learn to become more informed and advocate for themselves. With their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students How to Ask Their Own Questions, Rothstein and Santana have applied the process to education as well.

“Within five years, more than a quarter of a million teachers around the world were using our question formulation technique in their classroom,” Rothstein says.

The QFT involves these steps:

  • Design a question focus.
  • Produce questions.
  • Work with both closed-ended and open-ended questions.
  • Prioritize the questions.
  • Plan next steps.
  • Reflect on the process.

The technique empowers students to express their thinking without having to rely on the teacher. It helps prepare them for their own learning, while also taking ownership of the learning process. Along the way, students are learning a valuable skill that will help them become lifelong learners and discoverers.

The process “seems to address a need that teachers see and state repeatedly,” Rothstein says, “which is: My students struggle asking questions. They have difficulty going beyond one or two questions. Getting them to ask questions feels like pulling teeth. This basically changes that dynamic very quickly.”

He adds: “We’ve come to see that there are cognitive, affective, and behavioral changes that take place for the students when they use this (process). They now know how to produce questions, they know the difference between open-ended and closed questions. They know how to use criteria for prioritization of questions.

They feel differently: They become more confident, and they get excited about the questions they had come up with. And the behavioral changes are significant. Students who’ve never participated before begin to participate. Students learn to listen to each other. Listening skills are enhanced by this. The student are doing their own thinking—and they get excited about learning.”

Benefits for All

The benefits aren’t limited to the students.

Teachers who have used the QFT in their classrooms are “excited about what they’re seeing, and the engagement they’re seeing from their students, particularly those they are not accustomed to hearing from. I think this creates space for more voices to participate and more comfort for students to do that,” he says.

“I am struck by how joyful teachers are when their role is simply to think about how to design a question focus that will stimulate students’ questioning, and then take students through a very simple protocol in which students produce their own questions, prioritize them, and strategize on how to use them. Teachers come out of the process saying things like: This is the best feeling I’ve had from teaching in 17 years.”

Some teachers are using the QFT process at the beginning of a unit, to get students engaged and thinking about what they expect (and would like) to learn over the next few weeks. Some are using it as a type of formative assessment, to check where students are with their thought process. “Some have used it for summative assessment,” Rothstein says. For example: “Come up with a list of questions that you think a student studying late 19th century American imperialism should be able to answer.”

Encountering Roadblocks

He acknowledges that some teachers are reluctant to turn the questioning process over to students.

“They’re fearful. They say: What if students ask a question I don’t have the answer to?” he observes. “What if they ask a question that is not relevant, that we’re not going to be covering? There are a lot of concerns about what might happen if you open this up to students.”

But the whole point of the exercise, he explains, is the change the dynamic of teaching and learning. “My job (as a teacher) is to help you figure out how to find the answers to those questions,” he says, “not to be the person who has the answers. We’re changing the teacher’s role from transferring knowledge to teaching critical thinking and developing the skills for gaining new knowledge: researching, investigating, and knowing how to use sources.”

On the Right Question Institute website is a link to an Educator Network that teachers can join free of charge. The network contains resources that make it easy for teachers to use the QFT in their classrooms, including templates that help teachers design question focuses and videos showing how teachers have used the technique with their students.

Come to BLC in Boston July 26-28 to hear Dan speak firsthand—and learn more about how you can change the dynamic in your classroom with this simple technique!

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