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

teaching students how to ask questions

Dan Rothstein & Luz Santana, Harvard Education Press, 2011

The authors are directors of the appropriately named Right Question Institute (RQI) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Isn’t this the single most important change we can make as educators?

The authors make two simple arguments:

  • All students should and can learn to formulate their own questions
  • All educators can easily teach the skill as part of their regular practice

Like many, perhaps all of the most important things in life, this is simple, but not easy –  and the implications are profound. As Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education points out,

As the title of this book indicates, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana believe that education can be transformed if students, rather than teachers, assume responsibility for posing questions. This idea may sound simple, but it is both complex and radical: complex, in that formulating good, generative questions, and being prepared to work toward satisfactory answers, is hardly a simple undertaking; and radical, in the sense that an apparently easy move can bring about a Copernican revolution in the atmosphere of the classroom and the dynamics of learning. The authors modestly quote physicist Niels Bohr who once said, ‘An expert is someone who has made all possible mistakes in a field and there are no more to be made.’ In reading this powerful work, I was reminded of what Albert Einstein said, when he learned of Jean Piaget’s pioneering questioning of young children: ‘so simple only a genius could have thought of it.’

Organizing teaching around the art of asking questions goes beyond flipping the classroom from instruction to application and discussion. How do we design curricula to move beyond novelty and engagement into deep learning and skill development? How do we design the learning process to achieve learning outcomes based on the questions students ask?

In For Students, Why the Question is More Important Than the Answer, Katrina Schwartz summarizes the four rules of the authors’ “Question Focus” to guide students as they create the first set of questions.

In To Get Students Invested, Involve Them in Decisions Big and Small, Matt Levinson points out the challenges of this approach and makes suggestions for how to move from questions to engagement to experiences and ultimately to learning outcomes:

The hardest part about using design thinking in class is getting the question right and staying in the question. Educators regularly notice how challenging it is for students to stay in the question.  Student conversation can veer off track and the students can lose focus. It takes discipline for students to learn how to dig deep with focus on a design question.

For teachers, in designing learning experiences for students that are embedded with technology, the wording and focus of the question are paramount.  The question needs to be deeper than simply “Should or shouldn’t we use the iPad with this project.” The question needs to be open ended, elastic and invite multiple interpretations. Learning outcomes based on the question need to be defined and articulated,  and experiences to achieve those outcomes need to be created with student engagement in mind. Engagement alone is not enough. But engagement matched with outcomes around a carefully worded question propels student learning.

And he adds this vignette about how Isidor Rabi became a successful scientist:

When asked why he became a scientist, Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi attributed his success to his mother. Every day, she would ask him the same question about his school day: ‘Did you ask a good question today?’

‘Asking good questions – made me become a scientist!’ Rabi said.

More than forty years ago, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, also emphasized just how much any learning is driven by questions:

Once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.

But if all learning, research and practice is driven by questions, how do we decide what are the most important questions to prepare students to engage the world by educating them for global competence, defined as ‘the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance’? By democratizing education to educate for democracy, as HON 251 Citizen & Self does. Global education is the global dimension of democratic education.

Obviously, what our students learn and what they can do with what they learn critically depends on the kinds of questions we ask them to ask themselves, which depends on the questions we ask ourselves.

One of the most important questions in education has always been: Who educates the educators and how do educators educate themselves? The more we understand ourselves as learners, the more we will be able to learn from other learners (i.e. our students) and the better will we be able to teach, cultivating a ‘learning society‘ in the process.

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

  1. I like your thinking about democratic education and enjoyed seeing the syllabus of the course “Citizen and Self” (and, I grew up in Louisville, well aware of WKU). Thanks for this thoughtful post.

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