Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions

While authoring my forthcoming book, Building a Culture of Collaboration: School Librarian Leadership and Advocacy, I have read many professional books. This is the ninth in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your professional reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

As an advocate for inquiry learning, I am in total agreement with Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana: student-led questioning is an effective way to guide students into deeper learning. When students (or adult learners, for that matter) are invested in finding out why, they are more motivated to pursue answers to their questions and solutions to the world’s pressing problems—especially when the answers are illusive, the process is difficult, and the outcome is uncertain.

In their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, authors Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana note that student-led questioning helps ensure that students are learning and practicing thinking skills. Rothstein and Santana are the directors of the Right Question Institute (RQI), a 501(c)(3) educational non-profit organization.

They developed the Question Formulation Technique™ (QFT), which involves students in brainstorming questions as a way to launch an investigation. All students’ contributions are accepted and weighted equally. The question recorder documents all questions verbatim as asked without comment, response, or discussion. Statements are turned into questions as well. Students then prioritize questions to determine which are most compelling; their priorities set the learning agenda for the next class period (or subsequent lessons).

Educators can guide students in other types of questioning processes such as Question the Author (Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, and Worthy) during which students discover various aspects of the writer’s and illustrator’s craft as well as persuasive techniques and bias. When readers question the texts they encounter, they are engaged in an active learning process that has the potential to increase their content knowledge as well as improve their overall reading proficiency.

Questions are a way for students to uncover the gaps in their understanding. Questioning can also help them identify misconceptions. The ability to question, whether applied to reading and responding to literature, identifying bias in a political cartoon, or analyzing data in a scientific journal article, is an essential, lifelong-learning skill.

Santana and Rothstein call student-led questioning a “shortcut” to deeper learning. I agree. If you have not used the QFT™ in your teaching, I hope you will check out the RQI Web site and read their book. (Side note: One area RQI is exploring is “microdemocracy.” Their idea is that “ordinary encounters with public agencies are opportunities for individual citizens to ‘act democratically’ and participate effectively in decisions that affect them.” Brilliant work, if you ask me.)

That said, my experience tells me that educators who are teaching future-ready students need to do more than just this one thing to help prepare students for today and tomorrow. Honoring students’ agency and helping them explore their interests through student-led questioning is an essential and critical place to begin. Inquiry learning can be an essential part of the next steps, the “more” that future-ready students need.

Works Consulted

Beck, Isabel L., Margaret G. McKeown, Cheryl Sandora, Linda Kucan, and Jo Worthy. “Questioning the Author: A Yearlong Classroom Implementation to Engage Students with Text.” The Elementary School Journal, vol. 96, no. 4, 1996, pp. 385-414.

Rothstein, Dan, and Luz Santana. Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2015.

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About Judi Moreillon

Judi Moreillon, M.L.S, Ph.D., has served as a school librarian at every instructional level. In addition, she has been a classroom teacher, literacy coach, and district-level librarian mentor. Judi taught preservice school librarians for twenty-one years, most recently as an associate professor at Texas Woman's University where she taught courses in instructional partnerships, multimedia resources and services, children’s literature, and storytelling. Her research agenda focuses on the professional development of school librarians for the leadership and instructional partner roles.

2 thoughts on “Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions

  1. Thank you, Judi for a thought-provoking discussion of our work. We agree with you that good teaching involves far more than ‘just one change.’ Our hope is that teachers can use the Question Formulation Technique, and by making that one change, make the hard work of good teaching a bit easier! Feel free to drop the “TM” from the QFT. Everything’s available now via Creative Commons.

  2. Dear Dan, Thank you for your comment and for your work. Yes! to sharing strategies to make educators’ work easier and students’ learning more meaningful and successful. I have heard from several Building a Culture of Collaboration blog readers that your work has made a tremendous difference in their teaching. Bravo for licensing your work through Creative Commons. I removed the “TM” from QFT! All the best, Judi

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