By Maryann Woods-Murphy

This blog post was originally published April 11, 2017 on EdWeek.

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When I was in high school, I asked too many questions. Some teachers brightened when my hand shot up, but others sighed when they heard me ask, "Who decides what justice is?" or "How do we know that we really know anything?"

With questions solidly in my wheelhouse, it makes sense that when I became a teacher, I would see the immense value of inquiry-driven instruction. Questions build intrinsic motivation. They cause us to lean in and look for answers. Now, in my dual role as Gifted and Talented Teacher and Instructional Coach, I find myself continually seeking strategies to help my colleagues teach students to ask their own questions.

A colleague of mine who is also passionate about inquiry driven instruction recently reminded me that though educators talk about "rigor" and create "essential questions" for their classrooms, there is little guidance for educators about how to do this well.  I had an aha moment when I recently discovered The Right Question Institute (RQI), an organization entirely devoted to questioning as a path to democracy. The site supplies abundant and free educator resources, many based on their Question Formulation Technique (QFT) crafted 20 years ago out of a desire to help people ask their own questions and find excellent community-based solutions. The method offers resources for educators yearning for simple, yet powerful ways to engage students in the art of questioning.

I took to QFT with the zeal of convert. The QFT offers teachers a step-by-step approach to teach students to generate meaningful questions that connect to their own interests. Every QFT session starts off reviewing the rules for Question Formulation from Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Rothstein and Santana (2011):

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

When students understand and have discussed these rules, present them with a QFocus, which is a visual, verbal or aural prompt. For my first QFT session, I used a QFocus of a Margaret Meade quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Soon students began scribbling questions like, "What does it mean to be committed?" and "Why does anyone want to change the world?" even "What makes people doubt that they can change the world?"

I get goose bumps seeing what children think and do when we provide them with a space for inquiry. Their questions often provide a springboard to real rigor and deeper learning. Anchor charts and posters filled with engaging student questions cover our walls and stimulated more discussions and even deeper questions.

The French writer Voltaire (1694-1778) reminded us, "Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." When students learn how to ask their own questions, educators have the chance to trace their thought patterns and present them with paths to original and authentic research projects. Content-loving teachers can then help their students curate resources that will help them find meaningful answers. When students learn to ask their own questions, they soon understand that what they care about most, matters in school.

Maryann Woods-Murphy is a Gifted and Talented Specialist teacher in Nutley Public Schools in New Jersey. Among her awards and honors, Maryann was a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellowship in 2011, a New Jersey Teacher of the Year in 2010, and a Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Language Teacher of the Year in 2010. In 2011-2012, Maryann spent a year Washington, D.C. as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow. She is currently working on student talent development in 5 elementary schools in Nutley, New Jersey, to help children achieve, foster task commitment and creativity. In Nutley, she is also working as a teacher resource specialist to identify gifted behaviors in all students. Such a stance promotes a school culture where students receive the opportunities, resources and encouragement necessary to succeed. Maryann is keenly interested in seeing Gifted and Talented education as a lever for whole school achievement because the model focuses on student talent, interests and abilities instead of student deficits. Outside of education, she has a passion for writing, including blogs, poetry, and letters and is working on her doctorate in education at Walden University with a focus on teacher leadership.

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