NOTE: This lesson trail is an assignment for the Teaching 2.0 Master of Science in Education program at University of Wisconsin – Oskosh. Specifically, this is an assignment for ED715: Current Trends in Curriculum and Instruction – Inquiry & Problem Solving taught by Eric Brunsell. This is the second in a series of 3 mandatory lesson trials for this course, in which we must apply learnings from our coursework to our classroom instruction and reflect on the results.
Narrator: “Cut to a windowless meeting room in a small office in an aging office park somewhere in the U.S.A. Our intrepid hero is engaged in his latest job interview. The office smells of old carpets, new plastic furniture, and middle management.”
Interviewer: “So, do you have any questions for us?”
Intrepid Hero: “Oh… ummm…well….uhhhh…. not right now, I guess…”
Interviewer: “Okay, thanks for coming in. We’ll be in touch.”
Narrator: “Later, our intrepid hero wakes in a cold sweat in the middle of the night…”
Intrepid Hero (crying out to noone in particular): “Why didn’t I ask about training and benefits and opportunities for advancement and other responsibilities and COMPENSATION?!&%$#!???”
Narrator: “We’ve all experienced the painful discomfort of question block. Don’t let this happen to you ever again. Use the QFT and be prepared for anything.”
Chimes ring; cue cheezy outro music.
We’ve all experienced situations like this. Little did I realize when I first began asking my students to generate questions to guide their inquiry that this was how many of them feel. I blamed laziness, sleepiness, disengagement, and lack or curiosity for the struggles that many students experienced when pressed to ask questions. In reality, many of my students have not developed this critical skill. Without the ability to ask really good questions, inquiry never gets off the ground!
This is where protocols like the Question Formulation Technique (Rothstein and Santana, 2011) can help to move students forward and get the inquiry going.
Make Just One Change (Rothstein and Santana, 2011) is the book that breaks down this technique in detail. Their process, the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is essentially a structured brainstorming process that focuses on generating questions. Without delving into detail (or copyrighted material), I’ll just summarize the gist of the process thusly: 1) teacher shares the rules for the QFT with the students; 2) teacher introduces the question focus, a statement designed to inspire questions about a topic; 3) students generate, hone and prioritize their questions; 4) use questions as desired.
The questions that students were able to generate will serve as a question bank from which they may choose a driving question to guide their research for an inquiry-based project.
After introducing the QFT rules and facilitating a brief discussion of the rules, I introduced the question focus: “Evolution affects our daily lives.” Students immediately began generating questions, some more quickly than others. To those groups who were really struggling, I handed a small sheet with question starters to help them get the ball rolling.
After 8 minutes of question generation, students labeled the questions as closed- or open-ended (after a brief explanation of what those terms mean). Finally, the students selected their top 3 questions for research from their list and presented their priority questions to the class.
Groups generated an average of approximately 15 questions with a low of 8 and a high of approximately 30. Many of these were re-statements of the question focus or of each others’ questions.
My 3 biology classes generated a total of 45 priority questions (15 groups; 3 questions per group). Of these 45, 14 were duplicates of other questions already on the list. Thus, they generated a list of 31 unique questions to prompt their research.
My colleagues (Ken Olden and Tom Sheppard) and I separated these questions into 3 categories: unanswerable questions, low-depth questions, and high-depth questions. There were 8 unanswerable questions (example: what would happen if there was no evolution?), 5 low-depth questions (example: why are certain things colorful?), and 7 high-depth questions (example: how is evolution affecting animal diversity?).
The QFT helped my students to generate a significant list of questions to help guide their research for this project. While some of these are not usable as they are, we will give students the opportunity to modify any of the questions they generated to make them more suitable for research. They may also choose a question that is not on this list but we will encourage them to start with those, rather than starting from scratch. They will then create a project proposal to submit to their teachers for approval before beginning their project. The goal of this step is to prevent them from choosing unproductive questions that will leave them frustrated, not to control their learning.
Besides being a useful tool to teach students the skill of question generation and to kick off an inquiry project, the QFT served another crucial purpose: formative assessment. I was able to identify many student misconceptions during the GFT process that I have been addressing in my classroom since then. For example, there seemed to be a misconception in many students that there would be no evolution if Darwin had not “discovered evolution.”
I do question whether or not the Question Focus (“Evolution affects our daily lives”) was too broad or not provocative enough. In future attempts with the QFT I plan to experiment with more specific and/or provocative statements.
Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Make just one change: teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press.