Facilitating Student Owned Inquiry With The Right Question: Deeper Learning

Illustration: Questions marks

(Image credit: Michael Gorman)

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

As educators, it is very hard to not answer student questions. Yet, if we want students to own the inquiry, it is important to practice “answer restraint” in order to promote not just student answers… but more great student questions. As we all know, children are born with a natural inquiry  and those first five years are a gold mine of curiosity, questions, and wonderment! As children enter school they soon learn to stop asking questions, and instead look to the teacher for answers!

In a world filled with so much instant information, it is important  to teach students to ask even more questions as they seek possible answers. So many times we talk about “lifelong learning” and its importance to personal adaptability in a rapidly changing society and workplace. It is developing student skills to ask good questions while seeking out more questions, and eventual answers, that are at the foundation of “life-long learning”! It is only when students own the inquiry that they also begin to own, direct, and self-regulate their own learning. At this point, learning becomes both passionate and authentic. The question remains, how do we as educators make it happen?

Please let me introduce you to one of the very best techniques I know for developing student inquiry. It come from an amazing website… The Right Question Institute.  I encourage you to visit the website. You will find their mission statement as a reason to pursue their protocol with students.

The Right Question Institute aims to make democracy work better by teaching a strategy that allows anyone, no matter their educational, income, or literacy level, to learn to ask better questions and participate more effectively in decisions that affect them.

At the RQI they have come up with the protocol often referred to as QFT (Question Formation Technique). RQI states…  “In the classroom, educators around the world in diverse communities, from pre-k through higher education across all subject areas, have found that the QFT is a shortcut to stimulating student curiosity, increasing student engagement, and promoting deeper learning. Research has also found that the QFT significantly increases student curiosity, divergent thinking, and cognitive engagement, can lead to better argumentative writing scores, and that kindergarten students who learn the QFT ask more on-topic questions than students who have not learned the QFT.”

Let take a look at the QFT protocol:

(I will also insert some of my own thoughts as I have observed the process multiple times. I also have provided some alternate ways to look at the technique from my own practice. The actual technique as prescribed by RQI can be found at (Steps For QFT). I do think a visit to this page is a must!

First, students join a collaborative group. The power of the wisdom found in the crowd is so important for engaging and providing all the students the chance to see multiple ways of thinking. Learning happens in collaborative goods and asking the right questions is a great ticket for a wonderful learning journey!

A. The Question Focus: The students are provided an artifact using the ideas above. This could be a picture,  statement, phrase, video, graphic, article, sound byte, reading, object, math problem, or any other item that could allow for the incubation of questions.  After introduction, students quietly reflect on the artifact as they think about questions they might have about it. With this introduction students begin to brainstorm questions they may have on their own. There is no such thing as a wrong question. There is no need to question the questions or even try to answer them. Questions can be one word answers, open, closed, or any other style a student might wish. I feel there should be a brain storming choice, possibly based on group culture or situation. The brainstorming could happen individually outside of the group.  It could also happen inside a group. If it is done as a group then make sure students understand that there is no wrong question. This is not a time to question or answer the question, be sure to write questions as they are and feel free to change any statements to questions. (Watching students come up with questions is a rewarding experience. Every time I have seen this I compare that to the teacher question in a classroom and the number of hands raised to answer it. I also smile as I think of the number of student responses to a teacher’s statement of “any questions”.)

B. Students share questions in the group (If not done already). At this time it is helpful to make sure students understand the difference between an Open or Closed Question. As a group they share these questions and try to label them as Open or Closed. I( have seen some real deep conversations at this point. The learning really begins to become student owned. Keep in mind that students must follow the rule of honoring each others thoughts and ideas.)

C. Review once again the difference between Open and Closed Questions. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? When is the best time to use each one? (It is important that students understand this difference. This provides a pathway for finding the answers. This is valuable as students begin research and can also be key for students to learn how to answer high stake test questions. Think for a moment how you might answer an open as compared to a closed question.)

D. Have groups rewrite some of their questions in the following manner. Pick a Closed Question and make it Open. Next pick an Open Question and make it closed. Make sure students discuss these two areas. It is also important to talk about and have them discuss this process as they go through it. (This is my favorite part of QFT because of the deep learning and meta-cognitive demands that it puts forward. I have seen lights go on as students discover that as they take an open question to close… they have also found a way to begin research with brand new questions that are closed. This leads to answers and also new questions. Think of this in relationship to a high stakes test that has an open question. I think you can see the win here!)

E. The students now prioritize their questions in some type of order. This may depend on the next steps that the class will take. It may be questions that students consider most important, will help with research, can be used for an experiment, will guide reading/ writing, can be answered as you read, or will help you solve a problem. It is now time to put into action the reason for the QFT Protocol. (Imagine the focus students will have in the next step. They now have owned inquiry and the engagement is exciting to watch and be a part of. Keep in mind that new questions will materialize. Many times these will provide questions that converge toward an answer, and more often diverge into even more questions. I call it the inquiry spiral! These new questions need to be recorded).

I have  provided a handout that I have created using QFT, and also encourage you to be sure to read all about this technique at (Steps For QFT).  Also, check out the RQI’s Education Page. Here you will find valuable resources such as two excellent books, Partnering With Parents and Make Just One Change. There is also some amazing free resources such as Informational Materials,  webinars and videos that you can watch and listen to such as Google and QFT and Formative Assessment and QFT… plus so much more. Perhaps you want to read some more articles on QFT,  or you may go to the RQI’s Education Page and select (Subjects) to explore specific subjects such as this English Article or look at the Levels to see how it is used in AP Literature. I hope I have given you a reason to explore this whole web site!

Last, many times educators at workshops ask me where to find artifacts to use. I like to tell people to check out primary documents at the National Archive. You may wish to find the right video on YouTube, PBS Learning Video, or that artifact at Discovery Education if you are a DE School. How about artifacts at your favorite museum or past newspaper headlines and articles? There are also some pretty cool webcams at zoos, historical sites, and interesting places that might make a curricular connection. There might also be something that a filtered Advanced Google Image Search will turn up. Sometimes you can even use just a portion of a picture. There is always the opportunity to make a Word Cloud or even create one.  I also like the NY Times Whats Going On In This Picture and don’t forget how Graphs can pose a question.  It is now time for you to think of a way to get your students to come up with just the right question!

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

cross-posted at 21centuryedtech.wordpress.com

Michael Gorman oversees one-to-one laptop programs and digital professional development for Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a consultant for Discovery Education, ISTE, My Big Campus, and November Learning and is on the National Faculty for The Buck Institute for Education. His awards include district Teacher of the Year, Indiana STEM Educator of the Year and Microsoft’s 365 Global Education Hero. Read more at 21centuryedtech.wordpress.com.