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Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions

One of the students observes: “When you ask the question, you feel like it’s your job to get the answer, and you want to figure it out.”

Photo of Chris Becker
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This informative piece highlights a number of insights, the least of which is that we're all curious. Building from the bottom up, Rothstein and Santana share how powerful careful inquiry can be when developing confidence, comprehension, and passion in and with students, especially when focused on communal projects. 

Their project started about 25 years ago when trying to address the drop-out rate of high school students in their local area - an issue closely tied to SES. 

As we worked together to increase parent involvement in education, we heard parents state the same problem over and over again: “We’re not going to the schools because we don’t even know what to ask.”

In order to address this problem, they developed a six step approach.

  1. Facilitator Designs a Question Focus - This is non-question that provokes curiosity and incites imagination surrounding a general topic (e.g.  "Debt is one person's liability, but another person's asset." - Paul Krugman).

  2. Students Create Questions - Leave it to the students to create their questions around the QFocus by using four rules:

    1. Ask as many questions as you can. 

    2. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions.

    3. Write down every question exactly as it was stated.

    4. Change any statements into questions.

  3. Students Improve Their Questions - Students compare and contrast their questions with their peers while identifying any important variables they missed and honing in on the differences between open-ended and closed questions, etc.

  4. Students Prioritize Their Questions - The facilitator provides charitable guidelines and allows the students to organize their questions based on specified criteria (e.g. in the case of financial literacy, "Choose three questions related to debt." or "Choose three questions related to your community.").

  5. Decide Together On Next Steps - Everyone, including the facilitator, shares their questions and democratically chooses which ones to pursue collectively.

  6. Make the Process Transparent - Students reflect on the steps they took while hearing suggestions from the facilitator and sharing individual insights with their peers. 

At the end of the process, Rothstein and Santana reflect by sharing:

Teachers tell us that using the QFT consistently increases participation in group and peer learning processes, improves classroom management, and enhances their efforts to address inequities in education....After using the six-step process outlined above, [one teacher] was struck by “how the students went farther, deeper, and asked questions more quickly than ever before.”

The takeaway for me is that (these) questions are meaningful for everyone to be asking. More than this, by focusing first on cultivating a democratic culture of empathetic inquiry that implicates the people being served, we can hope to solve not just financial disenfranchisement, but many of the other issues facing us collectively. 

I'm eager to hear your thoughts! 


Join the conversation:

Photo of André Fernandes

Great insight Chris on inspire students ask their own questions. I'm working to prototype a cards game based on this idea on Methodkit principles. Any feedback and suggestion is welcome! I can send by e-mail a draft.

Photo of Chris Becker

Hey Andre, please do share your draft with me via email (! I think the Methodkit products (and principles) are intriguing; however, I wonder how we could expand their reach and bring in broader appeal past those who can self-identify their need for such a tool or guiding principle.

Perhaps a partial answer could be found if we try to design a series of questions that pique their curiosity or entice them with statements of their potential (e.g. "Help build the future of your community", etc.) and then integrate the Methodkit tools and principles to help them find a solution. Ironically, or perhaps not, it's a very similar idea to OpenIDEO itself, though applied to a specific context and supported with tools used to develop a deep understanding of finance and economic principles.

Photo of André Fernandes

Hi Chris, I'll send you the draft by e-mail. I'm starting to list patterns of financial literacy that could be used before structure the game. Thanks for your suggestions! I'll also start to discuss with Alper, who's going to guide the prototype of this challenge. Methodkit also remembers the Method Cards IDEO, which help designer and creativity professionals to carry on their projects.

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