Teaching students to ask questions

What would education be like if students knew how to pose, prioritize, and use their own questions? Vastly better than it is now, argue Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, authors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press, 2011). If students learned how to formulate good questions, according to the authors, they’d be that much closer to becoming “independent thinkers and self-directed learners”  and practitioners of “democratic deliberation.”

On the face of it, the idea sounds terrific. The ability to ask good questions can enhance both individual lives and common culture. Many people need special instruction in this skill; most of us have room for improvement. I am not convinced, though, that any of this requires the elaborate group processes that Rothstein and Santana describe.

The research started when the authors were working in a dropout prevention program. They heard from parents that they wouldn’t come to meetings at school because they “didn’t even know what to ask.” Rothstein and Santana began by giving them questions but then realized that this was only increasing their dependency—that they needed to know “how to generate and use their own questions.” Over time, the authors developed a technique for teaching just that. They and others founded the Right Question Project, now known as the Right Question Institute, which teaches the technique to people around the country and abroad.

The book explains the Question Formulation Technique, which consists of six components: (a) a Question Focus; (b) a process for producing questions; (c) an exercise for working on closed and open-ended questions; (d) student selection of priority questions; (e) a plan for the next steps; and (f) a reflection activity. The authors provide numerous case studies to show how these components have played out.

Before starting the process, students are introduced to the four rules: “(1) Ask as many questions as you can; (2) Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; (3) Write down every question exactly as it was stated; and (4) Change any statements into questions.” Students are supposed to reflect on these rules before proceeding. The authors explain:

The rules ask for a change in behavior, officially discouraging discussion in order to encourage the rapid production of questions. Students thus need to think about how they usually work individually and in groups. They name their usual practices and become aware of how they generally come up with ideas. They then must distinguish their present learning habits from what the rules require of them.

After receiving their Question Focus from the teacher, the students begin producing questions in groups. They are reminded to ask lots of questions and to refrain from judging, answering, or editing them. The teacher is not supposed to give examples of questions, even if the students are having difficulty.

From here, the students work on improving the questions. The teacher explains the difference between closed and open-ended questions and then guides the students as they sort out their questions and change some from one type to another. Through this activity, students learn how a question’s type or wording affects the possible answers. The authors wisely acknowledge that both closed and open-ended questions have a place; they just serve different purposes.

Once this is done, it is time to prioritize the questions (again, in groups). Students are to use the criteria set forth by the teacher: for instance, to choose the three questions that interest them the most or that they consider most important. They must provide a rationale for their choices.

Finally, the teacher and students (and sometimes the school) determine how they will use the questions. The teacher would set the context: for instance, the teacher might draw on the questions in class discussion, or the students might apply them to their homework or to a research project. Thus students come to see how the questions enhance their learning. At the  end, the students reflect on their learning.

The book’s main strength is its underlying premise that students (and people in general) benefit from asking their own questions. This is a good reminder for teachers like myself; I enjoy posing questions and take time to structure them carefully. I assume that students are learning, through my questions, how to ask questions of their own, but this is not always the case. (Sometimes it is.) So, even as a reminder alone, the book has value. Also, it reminds me of the complexity of good question formulation.

As for the drawbacks, there’s far too much emphasis on group work. To ask good questions, one needs time alone with the subject, or time in the classroom listening to the teacher, without obligation to spout anything out. A student who already asks good questions would likely be miserable in this process.

Also, group brainstorming does not necessarily result in the best ideas. In fact, it can degrade them. At the outset, the emphasis is precisely on spewing; there is no control for quality. Quality may be difficult to come by in this setting, anyhow; there’s so much buzz in the room that it’s difficult to form a coherent idea (or question) in the first place. Some students may have trouble getting a word in as others zing forth their latest inspirations. Later, when it comes time to prioritize the questions, group dynamics can get in the way all over again. The group may reject a question just because it doesn’t fit in.

The process as a whole seems to take a great deal of time—time that could be spent discussing the topic itself. As the authors present it, instruction in the Question Formulation Technique is separate from regular instruction in the topic. So, instead of discussing a Shakespeare sonnet and raising questions along the way, students do this group work, generate and select questions, and then come back to the sonnet. Unfortunately, the students may be too removed from the sonnet to know what to ask about it.

The Question Formulation Technique may well have a place in the classroom now and then. It may be a good way to warm students up to asking questions. There are other ways as well. For instance, a teacher could have students read a story for homework and then bring in two questions for class discussion. Students would then pose and consider their questions in class. Or students could learn to identify the hidden questions in an article or story; this would help them see questions where they are not obvious.

In short, this is an interesting and helpful book that oversells its methods just a bit.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Of whom are these questions to be asked? A good question may well challenge the questioned’s ability to answer.
    How many of these can some of the proposed questioneds stand, and then what?

  2. Lightly Seasoned says:

    This would be time-consuming in the beginning of the year, but once the kids are comfortable with it, you would see payoff on the investment. Teaching my students to do Harkness discussions is big time drain the first month of school, but once we have it down, we fly. A lot of that training is teaching them what questions to bring to the group.

    I agree about too much emphasis on group activity here — individual thought needs to have space in this process.

  3. Diana,
    Thanks so much for this very thorough and thoughtful review. It offers a very clear and illuminating presentation of the steps of the Question Formulation Technique. Your concerns about the emphasis on group work (and some of the disadvantages of brainstorming) helped me think in a new way about our book and about how we describe ways to use the QFT. Teachers using the QFT report now (more than when we wrote the book) about how they have their students, working entirely on their own, use the process for homework assignments, as a “Do Now” activity and as a method to get themselves “unstuck” on their own. Your comments helped me realize that we need to do a better job of describing individual use of the QFT. Thank you. You also may want to hear and join in some of the conversations educators are now having about the use of the QFT on our website: http://www.rightquestion.org.