Excerpted with permission from “Make Just One Change – Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions” by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana

Note from Bob:  It is said that the average four-year old asks 300 questions a day, while the average college graduate asks 20. What happens to children who are natural question-askers when they enter school? Traditionally, the skill of question-formulation has not been deliberately taught in schools. As a result, the amount of questions individuals ask declines precipitously over the course of their formal schooling, and many students enter the workforce and their careers without having developed this fundamental skill for learning and critical thinking. How sad! This is why I am so thrilled in today’s post to share with you this incredible book – along with introducing you to The Right Question Institute (RQI) founders Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. They share a simple, yet powerful strategy for teaching students how to ask and use their own questions. My hope is that you will share their book and work with every educator you know and that you will explore their free educational resources, materials, articles, and videos @RightQuestion.org!   FYI:  Today’s post includes multiple excerpts from numerous parts of this terrific book.

This book makes two simple arguments:

• All students should learn how to formulate their own questions.

• All teachers can easily teach this skill as part of their regular practice.

Ling-Se Peet, a high school humanities teacher with three years of experience in the Boston public schools system, shared with us her experience teaching a ninth-grade summer school class: fourteen-to-fifteen-year olds who, with an F+ for the year, had just missed the cutoff for advancing to tenth grade in the fall. Whatever their reasons for being there—illness, family crisis, or just plain struggling with lessons and homework—her job was to get them back on track so they could advance with the rest of their class.

During the first week of the program, Peet pushed and cajoled the class through a rigorous process of question-asking related to a reading assignment. Those hot July mornings, the students were prodded to think harder than many could ever recall doing. There were definitely some signs of interest and engagement, but there was also another, more pained look in evidence, expressed best by a gangly fifteen-year old who waved his arm slowly from side to side: “Miss Peet! Miss Peet!” It took a few calls, but finally he got her attention: “Miss Peet, my brain is hurtin’ from asking all these questions.”

Peet had indeed put a big hurt on her students that day. Offering just a few clear instructions, she had taken them through a demanding process in which they learned how to produce their own questions, improve these questions, prioritize them, and lay out some next steps for how they would be used.

Nine full years into their formal education, these youths had never done anything like the
“Question Formulation Technique” (QFT) and, though they found it taxing, they also found it challenging and stimulating. They climbed a sharp learning curve pretty quickly, and apparently that made an impression on them. Rosa, whose attention on other days had been entirely on her pocket mirror, wrote at the end of the class that she “felt smart asking all these questions”—a term that had not previously been part of her lexicon when describing her experience at school.

The kinds of changes noted by Peet’s students also show up in communities where students consistently do well in school. A librarian at the J. L. Stanford Middle School, a public school in Palo Alto, California, observed some of those changes. She noticed that students in Hayley Dupuy’s science class and Katie Schramm’s social studies class had clearly benefited from learning how to come up with their own questions. “Your students,” she told them, “are very well prepared to do research and work on their own as independent learners.”

Dupuy and Schramm, dedicated, resourceful veteran teachers with a combined twenty-one years of classroom experience, had recently started to explicitly teach students how to formulate their own questions. They, their students, and even some of the students’ parents noticed the difference. One parent told Dupuy: “I see the difference in my younger son. Learning how to ask his own questions put him further ahead in his project work than I saw with his older siblings.”

The rigorous process of learning to develop and ask questions offers students the invaluable opportunity to become independent thinkers and self-directed learners. Many teachers who aspire to do precisely that often struggle against significant odds—overcrowded classrooms, underresourced schools, demanding directives from central office, and students who seem either too harried or too alienated to engage seriously with the life of the classroom. Yet the teachers with whom we have worked find that using the QFT actually lightens their load, while leading to better outcomes and greater student ownership of learning.

We (Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana) created the Right Question Strategy to teach two core skills: the ability to ask questions and the ability to participate effectively in decisions.

There is but one change being asked of you in this book: you will be leading a process in which your students will be thinking and working by asking their own questions, rather than by responding to questions you ask. This may feel strange at first—for both you and your students. It does not replace everything you do, it simply adds one new element to your teaching. Once the QFT becomes part of your practice and that of your students, it becomes a renewable resource in your teaching repertoire and in their learning repertoire.

The Right Question Institute (RQI) Question Formulation Technique (QFT)™

• Produce Your Own Questions

• Improve Your Questions

• Prioritize Your Questions

Produce Your Questions

Four essential rules for producing your own questions:

• Ask as many questions as you can.

• Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions.

• Write down every question exactly as it is stated.

• Change any statement into a question.

Improve Your Questions

Categorize the questions as closed- or open-ended:

• Closed-ended questions: They can be answered with yes or no or with one word.

• Open-ended questions: They require an explanation and cannot be answered with yes or no or with one word.

Find closed-ended questions. Mark them with a c.

The other questions must be open-ended. Mark them with an o.

Name the value of each type of question:

• The advantages and disadvantages of asking closed-ended questions.

• The advantages and disadvantages of asking open-ended questions.

Change questions from one type to another:

• Change closed-ended questions to open-ended.

• Change open-ended questions to closed-ended.

Prioritize the Questions

Choose your three most important questions:




Why did you choose these three as the most important?

Next Steps

How are you going to use your questions?

The Importance of Asking Questions

Is teaching students how to ask their own questions really so important? Here are just a few of a great many observations that make the case for the importance of questions:

Young children:

“Children are natural question-askers. They have to learn how to adapt to a complex and changing environment. But whether they continue to ask questions . . . depends in large part on how adults respond to them.” (Robert Sternberg)

Students in grade and high school:

“[A]ll the knowledge we have is a result of our asking questions; indeed . . . question-asking is the most significant intellectual tool human beings have. Is it not curious, then, that the most significant intellectual skill available to human beings is not taught in school? I can’t resist repeating that: The most significant intellectual skill available to human beings is not taught in school.” (Neal Postman)

College students:

In 2002, the New York Times asked several college presidents what students should learn from four years of college. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, responded, “The primary skills should be analytical skills of interpretation and inquiry. In other words, to know how to frame a question.” Nancy Cantor, current president of Syracuse University, said that the world is so complicated that “the best we can do for students is to have them ask the right questions.” (Kate Zernike)

Business leadership:

“The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions.” (Peter Drucker)

Health care:

“A patient is not a doctor [and] lacks a doctor’s training and experience. And many laymen feel inhibited about asking questions. But the questions are perfectly legitimate. Patients can learn to question and to think the way a doctor should.” (Jerome Groopman)

Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein, Co-Founders of The Right Question Institute, have been at work for more than 20 years developing and sharing strategies that help all individuals 1) build their question-formulation skills and 2) learn how to more effectively participate in decisions that affect them. These simple, yet powerful strategies are used by educators, community health workers, health care providers, and professionals in many other fields as they work with individuals to develop essential skills for learning, thinking, and advocating. Learn more at www.rightquestion.org or read their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask their Own Questions.


Related Topics

Join The Conversation