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The Power of Formulating Questions

By 2019 AE&L Conference Presenter Debbie Tuler

One of my first great discoveries as a teacher was the joy of small group work. But first let me confess that I never thought I would be a teacher, as I am introverted and dislike being the center of attention. I remember how anxious I felt in my first class with all the students staring at me! Small group work saved me and madea teaching career possible. Not only did it take the attention away from me, but it also increased the learning and practice for the students.

After 30 years of teaching, attending countless professional development opportunities, and learning and applying new strategies and skills, I recently experienced another“aha” that reminded me that teaching is about not only facilitating others’ learning in the classroom, but also providing the skills so they can continue to learn on their own.

During my career, I have typically asked students questions (to check comprehension or practice language) or given them questions to work through and discuss. I encouraged and invited students to ask questions about things they didn’t understand or wanted to know more about, but I am sure I asked more than they did. Unfortunately, when teachers ask questions, they are deciding what students will learn and students are looking for the “right” answer—the one the teacher wants—even when there is no one right answer.

Question Formulation Technique

The question formulation technique (QFT), developed by the Right Question Institute at Harvard University, is a technique for teaching students in K-12, adult education, and higher education to ask their own questions. Last spring, I took an in-depth, online introductory course on this topic. QFT scholars developed this technique in response to a discovery during a dropout prevention program in a working-class and immigrant suburb of Boston. Parents said they did not go into the school or get involved in their children’s education because they didn’t know what questions to ask.

The basis for the technique is that we can encourage and invite questions all we want, but if students (children or adults) don’t know how to ask questions (whether in class, at the doctor’s office, in an admissions office, with an insurance company, or during a job interview), then they cannot find out what they really want to know in order to learn or make informed decisions.

I tried QFT both with English learners in a beginner-level class and with instructional staff for professional development. Listed below are the basic steps for using QFT.

Example with Beginning English as a Second Language (ESL):I used this technique at the beginning of a unit in the Stand Out 2 textbook as a form of needs assessment, so my question focus was simply the title of the unit—”Food and Nutrition.”

Students’ priority questions helped me determine which lessons within the unit to focus on and which to skip. I designed activities that built the skills they wanted, including engaging in role plays to practice ordering and asking questions about food in a restaurant, at someone’s house, or at a school potluck; reading complex text about nutrition; and writing shopping lists for balanced meals. At the end of the unit, we referred back to the students’ questions to decide if they had learned what they wanted (had met their learning goals) and/or had additional questions, before moving on to another unit.

Why was this so exciting? These students were more engaged than they had been with earlier units in the textbook. They wanted to learn and to do the activities. They were also more engaged than my previous year’s class with that same unit. This time, the students talked more and worked harder. They were both focused and lively. Richard Feyman, Nobel prize-winning physicist said, “There is no learning without having to pose a question”*—a reminder that the students need to ask questions in order to learn—they don’t learn just by answering my questions.

I did face a couple of challenges using the QFT. One was that it took several times using the technique for students to understand and get used to the idea of producing their own questions. (They were accustomed to me asking them questions!) I also found that the overall process took longer than the suggested time frame laid out in my online training course.

A second challenge was that my ESL students had questions but did not always have the vocabulary or syntax to produce them correctly. For example, one student asked, “What is in this food?”. We understood the question, even though we wouldn’t normally ask that way. Rather than giving her the word “ingredient” right away, we went on to learn about ingredients in the lesson on nutrition. Afterwards, when we reviewed their initial questions as part of the reflection, the students were able to rephrase the original question as, “What are the ingredients?”. This offered a way for me to assess their learning— they were able to rephrase based on what they learned to formulate a better question.

Another time I used this technique, a student asked, “What people do in the community?”. Again, we could understand her question, but she did not have the auxiliary “do.” Teaching sentence structure is not part of the technique, so I adapted it with a back and forth, having students produce questions (focusing on the idea or concept) and then later using the student-produced questions to teach the syntax. In the case of this example, I did a lesson on using the auxiliary verb so students could correct the question into, “What do people do in a community?”. I am going to play around with incorporating this into Step 3, improving questions.

I am energized to begin a new year and really put this technique into practice. On the one hand, it is a very simple set of steps; on the other hand, it is complex in terms of coming up with an effective question focus and prioritizing criteria. How wonderful that even after 30 years, I can be excited and transform my teaching!

Question Formulation Technique Steps

  1. Teacher/facilitator provides “Question Focus,” such as sentence, topic, quote, video clip, or image.
  2. Students/participants produce questions in groups, following four rules (this is divergent thinking).
  3. Students/participants follow a protocol to improve their questions.
  4. Students/participants prioritize their questions (this is convergent thinking).
  5. Students/participants and teacher decide on next steps and take action (these are the learning activities, which are based on what students want to know and learn—great adult learning practice!).
  6. Afterwards, students or participants reflect on their learning—a metacognitive skill!

The Right Question Institute provides numerous resources and examples of the technique in content areas of English, social studies, science, and math in K-12, higher education, and adult education. For an introductory explanation and template and facilitator guide, visit the website.

*From Experiencing the QFT (PowerPoint presentation) in the Right Question Institute’s course: Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions

Debbie Tuler

Debbie Tuler, ESL Specialist, has been in the field of adult English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) for 30 years, with experience in instruction (all levels), teacher training, curriculum development, and program evaluation. She was part of the state Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education (IELCE) development team. Currently, she teaches high beginner ESOL and facilitates in-house professional development for ESOL staff in her program, Thomas Jefferson Adult and Career Education at Piedmont Virginia Community College, Region 10 (TJACE@PVCC).