What if…students asked their own questions?

Early last year I had the serendipitous opportunity to read a fabulous new [to me] book called: A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger. I say serendipitous because while I was looking on Amazon.com for something new to read, I came across this title totally by accident. The title drew me in and…well, that darn “one click” was on so I pressed it. When it arrived a few days later I read it in about one sitting, and knew that things were going to change. I had an “ah ha!” that seemed to put into place so many of the things I had been thinking about and working on, but hadn’t put them together.

In this book, Mr. Berger reminds us that we begin asking questions almost from the moment we can talk. The mind and body of the three-year-old is continually moving: touching, investigating, experimenting, and asking questions. Three-year-olds want to know and understand the world around them, so they ask.
The ability and/or the desire to keep asking questions diminishes thorough time, partially because we can figure things out by ourselves, partially because we know how to find out answers by ourselves, and just as often, we stop because our questions are squelched. There are many reasons for this, but often it’s because question asking can come at inconvenient times for classroom teachers and other adults, or questions can often be “off topic” from the direction we as teachers might like to be going.  IMG_2609
Schools have been notorious for squelching student questioning until recently when it was recognized that inquiry is a useful approach in teaching, and “wondering” is a positive attribute to be encouraged. Teaching the skills necessary to become a competent inquirer is now a part of many state and national standards.

But how do we teach question asking? Quite often, in our hurry to let students loose to inquire, we forget that inquiry begins with a connection to a question, and that question is connected to an interest. What if we spent some time teaching kids how to ask questions, recognize the many kinds of questions there are, and then prioritize their questions to determine which ones are worth taking the time to answer? Luckily there are several people who have thought deeply about this and have some strategies to help us. Here are some of them:

First of all – read Mr. Berger’s book. He lays a foundation that shows how innovation is encouraged by wonder, sparked by “what if”, and acted upon by “how do…” For example: noticing that something needs changing or wondering why something is the way it is can generate “why” questions. After thinking about “why” things might need to change,  it will be time to think about how might we change it.  Our next question then becomes: “well.. what if…”?  Now we have some food for thought and  can explore those who have gone before us or are currently working on the same ideas. Finally, we are ready to test out our theories and spur ourselves into action by asking – and then acting upon: ‘how do…” questions. These questions help us work with the information we’ve gathered up until now and we can begin to posit our own solutions and try them on for size.

This is the kind of “ah ha” spark we desire for our students.

Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana have developed a series of steps that teachers can take to lead students through a questioning process in their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. The steps start with a Focus statement, question, or other compelling document/idea that you, the teacher, makes. Then students respond with questions that that Question Focus statement [Qfocus] sparks by writing down all the questions they can think of. Through the next set of steps, students identify what kinds of questions they’ve created, organize them, and prioritize them, seeking to discover which, if any, might lead them further research.

Rothstein and Santana have an excellent website (http://www.rightquestion.org) that outlines the process, the big ideas and the pedagogy behind questioning. With the information from the site, you can begin using the Question Focus Technique (QFT) right away. The book gives you samples, examples, and more background on how questioning can work well in classrooms and libraries.

But even with the help of a process for working with and asking questions, I am often stumped on how to come up with good questions myself. I like to give question prompts to students because they help students to create a complete sentence by starting it for them. But because I often find it difficult to think of those prompts myself I turn to Jamie McKenzie, author of The Educational Technology Journal, the Question Mark and many books on the subject of questions.

IMG_2607  He shows us that questions are based on where one might like to go while answering them. A “what do they mean” question seeks to clarify a point or a data set while a “how do they…” question leads students towards a divergent thinking process. The Question Toolkit (http://www.fno.org/nov97/toolkit4.html) explains the many question types and shows how the prompts work within those types. They are useful in giving me the practice I need to get myself started in forming good Question Focus ideas.

These resources help to develop a deeper understanding about questions: why to ask them, how to ask them, and more importantly how to get your students asking them. Helping students to focus in on questions that they themselves generate can begin to excite them, becoming a step towards finding that connection to a possibly compelling research project–one that excites them enough that they are willing to do all the work that a great research project entails.

Works Cited
Berger, Warren. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark  Breakthrough Ideas. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2014. Print.

“The Questioning Toolkit.” The Educational Technology Journal. Ed. Jamie McKenzie. From Now On Press, n.d. Web. 1 Sept. 2015. .

Rothstein, Dan, and Luz Santana. Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Cambridge: Harvard Education, 2011. Print.

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!



Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

4 replies

  1. I loved a More Beautiful Question and find myself often referring to Berger’s Why? What If? How ? thought process for Innovation. I highly recommend using The Question Formulation Technique for student hypothesis creation.

  2. Doggoneit…I think you just made me revamp my whole class that I just revamped.

  3. I hope you share all the changes you make Amy!

  4. Excellent article and comes at the right time for me as there are about to be a lot of changes in my school and district and this gave me fuel for the fire!

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