Better questions=Better learning

From Teacher’s Questions to Students’ Questions
By Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana

Questions are a teacher’s trusted friend. Teacher-generated questions make it possible to cajole students to think in new ways, to assess and re-assess what they’ve said or written, to probe, ponder, explore, clarify and even inspire. That’s quite an energizing list of verbs, conjuring up images of an active, engaged learning environment.
Many great educators who have celebrated the use of questions in the classroom, drawing upon a range of practices and traditions, including project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, Montessori, and Great Books, all the while aiming to model, encourage, and improve the level of questioning in the classroom.  In some of these particular pedagogical approaches, however, there’s also an implicit and sometimes even explicit argument that can inadvertently impede students asking their own questions. The argument suggests that to climb the mountain of Bloom’s Taxonomy requires that students need to know how to ask “better” questions, or what might be called “higher order” questions.

We have seen, however, that the demand for ‘higher order’ questions from the outset can actually prove counter productive to students getting comfortable and proficient at asking their own questions. Indeed,  we  have seen that the actual skill of question-asking can be discouraged when, from the outset, the teacher is concerned that the students will not be asking ‘good’  or ‘higher level’ questions.

In the arena of idea production, in contrast, the familiar path to good ideas, as Einstein pointed out, is paved by having lots of ideas. Unstated, but clearly suggested here, is that along that path, there were a lot of not so very good ideas that had to be jettisoned.

Today, the practice of “brainstorming ideas” is simply common wisdom, even though it is a relatively recent entry into the world of idea-generation, emerging only several decades after Einstein’s maxim about the production of (relatively) good ideas. Brainstorming as a practice, made room for and even honored bad or simply weaker ideas, with an acknowledgment that they may even play a catalytic role in the eventual production of a good idea. 
We need to apply Einstein’s Theory of Relatively Good Ideas to the act of question-generation as well. Students can eventually get to “better” questions or to “higher-order” question if we make it easier for them to learn how to produce their own questions, “good” ones or “bad” ones. But, making it easy for them to ask questions can be a challenge in and of itself. As any teacher who has ever asked, “are there any questions” knows all too well.

RQI has been working on this challenge for two decades, trying to figure out the simplest way to teach anyone, no matter their educational, income or literacy level, how to ask their own great questions. It’s curious that we have had to spend so much time trying to re-create an ability for which many students demonstrate perfect competency when they arrive at school as kindergarteners.  The insight about the importance of people learning to ask their own questions actually came from parents in one low-income community who told us they did not come to school or participate in their children’s education because they “did not know even what questions to ask.”

Our work with them and with many other people learning to think and act on their own behalf helped us eventually tease out a simple, but rigorous process that produces remarkably consistent results. We call it the Question Formulation Technique™ (QFT), a step by step process that promotes divergent thinking, convergent thinking and metacognition. People who have never before asked questions, use the process and learn to produce their own questions, improve them and strategize on how to use them. The results are often transformational and have been demonstrated in many fields (in health care, for example, in NIH-funded studies at

Recently, we’ve worked closely with teachers and have been impressed by how quickly they can take the QFT™ and integrate it easily into their on-going classroom practice. A second grade teacher uses the process in a very straightforward way for students to study major weather events, develop questions to drive their research, shape their reports all the while using the metacognitive aspects of the QFT™ to reflect on their own learning.   A middle school social studies teacher has students use the process to lay the foundation for their month-long multi-media projects on Ancient Egypt. A high school biology teacher uses the process early in a unit so the students can see what questions they are answering as they move along in their unit.  A high school mathematics teacher adopts the process to drive his pedagogy, encouraging students to “think like mathematicians and turn answers into questions.” And, teachers at all levels use the QFT™ to help students “get unstuck” when they state, repeatedly, “I don’t get it.”

The examples go on and on because the obvious idea of the value of students learning to ask their own questions resonates strongly with so many teachers. But, the QFT™ is also being used by more and more teachers because the students do indeed wind up asking “better” questions or “higher level” questions, They get there through a process that started with divergent thinking, producing many questions. Then, they started to look more closely at the questions they produced and classified them into just two categories: open and closed-ended.

As they begin to see that they get different kinds and levels of information based on the kinds of questions they ask, students begin to develop the sophistication about questions that their teachers have acquired through years of practice. The QFT™ then has the students prioritize their questions and that pushes them to assess the relative value of each question, the sequence in which they need to be asking their questions and, even, discover new questions that they need to ask as well.

Teachers who may feel uncomfortable at first making the switch from asking questions of students to students asking their own questions, are quickly persuaded by the changes they see in their students. When students learn to ask their own questions, they themselves become acutely aware of a change in themselves:  “When I ask the question,” a high school student in a Boston high school said, “I feel like I really want to get the information I need. It’s different than just answering the teacher’s questions.”  A student in a suburban middle school observed: “You learn more when you ask your own questions.” And, most poignantly, a summer school student in a remedial program to prevent being held back, announced a change in how he felt about  himself as a student: “you know, i’m getting good at this question thing. It makes me feel smart.”
These are students who not only feel better about their ability to think for themselves, but they also demonstrate to their teachers that they:

  • are more engaged in their learning
  • take greater ownership
  • learn more.

These are powerful outcomes that emerge when students learn to ask their own questions. And, it’s made possible by teachers who commit themselves to ensuring that their students leave their classrooms not only knowing more, but knowing how ask the kinds of questions teachers already to cajole, inspire and engage the brain to think in new ways. And,as one teacher noted, they not only know how to ask the questions she often asks. Her students used the QFT™ to “ask different and better questions than I’ve ever heard in my thirty years of teaching.”

Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana are Co-Directors of The Right Question Institute
Co-Authors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Question