The art of questioning

Posted by: Associate Professor Andrea Chester, Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor, Learning and Teaching, Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Over the years I have read quite a bit on the use of questions in education. There are a number of useful websites that describe the importance of questioning in teaching and defining different types of questions. The UNSW L&T Unit has one, as does Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

make-just-one-change-smAs part of the toolkit of a student-centred teacher, questioning has long been considered a core skill for all teachers from primary through to the tertiary context. So central is the skill that Mary Jane Aschner (1961) described educators as ‘professional question makers’. I know from experience how a well-chosen question can open up a rich discussion and how the wrong question can close it down.

What I hadn’t spent much time thinking about was how to encourage students to ask their own questions.  That is, until I read Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana.

Rothstein and Santana argue teaching can be transformed if students, rather than teachers, assume responsibility for questioning. They argue that asking questions is fundamentally empowering and that all students can and should learn to formulate their own questions and that all teachers can integrate development of the skill into their regular teaching practice. While the book is pitched at teachers of K-12, the ideas can easily be applied to tertiary teaching.

The book and associated online resources available through the Right Question Institute set out the seven-step Question Formulation Technique (QFT™) summarised below.

Step

Description

Principle

Approximate time allocation

  • Begin with a question focus (QFocus)
This is the work you do to develop a stimulus, which can be a topic, a sentence, an image or an object, depending on your purpose, but generally not a question itself.  –  (varies)
  • Share and discuss the rules for producing questions
There are four rules:

  • ask as many questions as you can
  • do not stop to discuss, judge or answer questions
  • write down each question exactly as it is stated
  • change any statements as questions 
Meta-cognition 5-7 minutes
  • Produce Questions
In small groups students produce as many questions as they like within the available time. Divergent thinking 5-8 minutes
  • Categorise Questions
In this step students are encouraged to improve their questions by labeling each as either open or closed and discussing the differences between these two types of questions. Students are encouraged to change some questions from one type to the other to explore the difference in possible responses. Analysis and convergence 5-10 minutes
  • Prioritise Questions
Students prioritise their questions, articulate their rationale and select the three most important questions. They note where these questions occurred in their original list of questions, at the beginning, middle or end. 5 minutes
  • Next Steps
Here students consider how they will use their questions. This depends on your purpose for engaging in the activity. Application Will depend on purpose of QFT™
  • Reflection
Finally students reflect on what they learned and how they can use it. Meta-cognition 5-8 minutes

The entire sequence can be completed in 30 minutes, with a reduction as you and the students become more familiar with the process.

When you might want to use the QFT™
The QFT™ can be used to:

  • generate interest at the start of a course

    Click on the image to see Dan Rothstein's TEDx presentation: "Asking questions is the single most powerful renewable source of intellectual energy: It's in our minds we can create it, we can create it continuously..."

    Click on the image to see Dan Rothstein’s TEDx presentation: “Asking questions is the single most powerful renewable source of intellectual energy: It’s in our minds we can create it, we can create it continuously…”

  • introduce a new topic
  • assess and/or deepen understanding
  • stimulate new thinking
  • prepare for an assessment task
  • conclude a topic or course.

What to know more?

References:

Aschner, M. J. (1961). Asking questions to trigger thinking. National Education Association (NEA) Journal, 50, 44-46.

Share your thoughts and questions in the comments section!
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