07 Dec Students as Question Askers
Watching TV last night I caught a glimpse of the Google App commercial : “Questions”. Whilst Google should not be the be all and end all of questioning, the commercial delivers a powerful message about the importance of questions, and for me, the importance of the questions students bring to the classroom.
I saw a fundamental connection to the stunningly beautiful Louis Vuitton commercial from a few years ago: “Journeys”, in so far as learning is a journey, “not a destination”. It’s a process of discovery and self-discovery, which brings us face to face with who we are. As I stood watching this for the first time, standing in a taxi line in Hong Kong on an impossibly rainy day, I was struck by how closely the message relates to learning. I remember thinking that if the journey we take in life defines the person we become, then shouldn’t our students have greater ownership of the route they take and the way they choose to travel?
If we were to combine these two videos I believe we would create something that powerfully illustrates the importance of developing the capacity of every student to ask great questions; questions that define and shape their journey as learners.
Student questioning is born of curiosity and creates a gateway to new, authentic and, by definition, relevant next-steps learning. However, research by The Right Question Institute, Boston, MA, indicates that student questioning drops off massively once children begin formal education. Preschool students ask their parents an average of 100 questions a day yet by middle school, they’ve virtually stopped asking questions.
(Source: The Right Question Institute)
This is beautifully illustrated by Dr John Edwards in the poem, “The things we steal from children” where he states that, as teachers, the first thing we steal from students is their questions. If we are to support our learners in developing essential skills, attitudes and competencies then it is vital that we learn how to not just give them back, but to return them to their rightful owners in better shape than we found them.
This in turn reminded me of an inspirational Ted Talk by the brilliant Kath Murdoch called “The Power of Ummmm” in which she suggests that schools are not great places for awe and wonder as they focus on the quick and the decisive, the right and the wrong, over “if…”, “maybe…” and “I wonder…”.
Kath Murdoch: “The Power of Ummmm”
What becomes immediately apparent is the fact that the skill of question asking is rarely deliberately taught in school. Curiosity is replaced by conformity and compliance, and spoon-feeding has no place for awe and wonder.
Under the rallying cry of “make learning irresistible”, Michael Fullan recently shared data collected by Lee Jenkins, which bears an uncanny resemblance to The Right Question Institute’s data. As students progress through the grades they become increasingly disaffected and bored. They are checking out. Again, by combining these two sets of data, a story emerges that highlights the need to re-engage students in the learning process, to encourage and activate their skills as questioners and to give back what we steal from them on entering school; the ownership of their own learning and the capacity to shape their own journeys.
The challenge, as time and resource-poor educators, is to overcome the pressure to “cover” when faced with the demands of a crowded curriculum.
I was recently lucky enough to attend a two day workshop run by The Right Question Institute (RQI), a not-for-profit organization based in Boston, MA. The RQI bases their work on two basic principles:
- All students should and can learn to formulate their own questions
- All educators can easily teach the skill as part of their regular practice
At the heart of their philosophy is the impressively powerful Question Formulation Technique (QFT), a simple yet rigorous process that teaches students to produce, improve and prioritize their questions.
The QFT in action
As we worked through the process I began to see how Verso could bring incredible value to the process and how Verso Campus could allow teachers to make, connect, share and gain visibility on strategies that worked, along with evidence of student questions that were generated by different stimuli. With this in mind, I began to create Verso activities designed to activate deep thinking, but I wanted that thinking to manifest itself in the form of rich student generated questions.
If we could do this successfully, this strategy would not only reveal each student’s current position on their individual learning journeys; it would also inform the teacher as to where to go next. It would activate peers as co-constructors of meaning and it would initiate powerful student inquiry.
I set about activating students to find their own, interest-based ways in. The examples below demonstrate different approaches which VersoCampus data consistently reveals to be universally successful.
Example 1. This requires students to formulate questions from an info-graphic about the distribution of food. This idea was extended further by supplying students with info-graphics from the same series relating to issues such as access to education, nationalities, ethnicity, literacy and wealth, thus requiring students to develop questions that seek out connections between complex concepts. Students see each data point as a dot to be connected and their questions need to require access to more than one data point in order to be answered.
Example 2 requires students to devise questions that are non-Googleable. After watching a video on The Earth in Space, students had to share their big questions. They then had to comment on each others’ responses by first stating whether the question asked was a, Googleable or b, non Googleable. They had to go on to explain their thinking before looking at ways to extend and refine any Googleable (surface) questions to make them all non-Googleable (deep).
Example 3 requires students to study an image of a crocodile with its baby. In advance of reading a book on crocodiles, the students were asked to develop questions that they would like answered, using “I wonder…” as their question starter.
Example 4 provides students with a question focus statement. For this activity, students are required to share as many questions as they can. The RQI rules mean that students can not comment on each others’ questions. They can not judge or attempt to answer any at this stage. Once the questioning is completed, the students are asked to state whether each question is open or closed before converting any closed questions into open questions and vice-versa. Once the activity is complete, the teacher exports the questions and shares them with students. Students then work together to prioritize questions before selecting their top 3.
At the request of schools and districts we are now offering professional development programs to support teachers in activating their students as question-askers. For more details click here.