Lesson Trial – Question Formulation Technique

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.

Lesson Trial

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.

How to do inquiry Project-Based Learning (PBL Series Part 6)

This is probably the hardest aspect of PBL to describe.  How to explain how to do something that is inquiry?  How to describe something that, by nature, requires student involvement.  The key is the structures.

Honestly, this is very much a work in progress for me.  I’m learning how to do this as I go.  Call me a mad scientist; call it action research; call it whatever you want.  I learn by [informed] trial, error and reflection.  I want my students to learn that way too.

What structures, then, can one establish to support inquiry within project-based learning?

The hook

hookThis is where you get them.  Without a good hook, students will not want to inquire within the realm of the project that you have planned for them.  Great hooks can come from a multitude of places.  Pictures, video clips, artifacts, primary source documents, discrepant event demonstrations, play with a purpose activities, and the like can all make great hooks.  Use the hook to get them asking questions early and often.  Honor their questions and compile them into a class anchor chart.  Keep it present constantly.  Most importantly – resist the urge to answer their questions.  Get off the stage!

The driving question

You have 2 basic options here – teacher created or student created.  Of course, there are infinite variations from this theme.  Your firstquestionmark project should probably have a teacher created driving question.  This question recieves its moniker from the concept that it drives the entire project.  Thus, the driving question must follow a few key rules:

  1. Must not be a yes/ no question
  2. Must be worth answering and engaging to students
  3. Should have broad relevance across field of study, content areas, and walks of life
  4. Should address a big idea in your content area

Building Background Knowledge

Give students enough knowledge to inquire productively.  Give them general topical information, main ideas, representative case studies, segments of text, and more in order to build up some basic understanding of the topic.  Many basic knowledge-type questions will be answered here.  Let them use their favorite search engine or Wikipedia to knock off a few more of the basic fact questions.  There should be enough common experiences here to create a solid foundational understanding of the general topic.

Nurture student questions

Give students ample opportunity to brainstorm questions, to share them, to hone them and to investigate them.  Help them to delineate rich, complex questions from simple “Google” questions.  Nurture curiosity by allowing bunny trails do blossom into full blown discussions.  Keep a running anchor chart of student questions and encourage them to select one (or more) that they will investigate as a guiding question under the driving question.

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

Part 5 - Why PBL is good for students

Question mark photo cc licensed courtesy of Alexander Drachmann‘s Flickr photostream
Fish hook photo cc licensed courtesy of Lenore Edman‘s Flickr photostream

How I’ve constructed my instructional style

The foundation

These are the things that underly all that I do with students

Inquiry - obviously – as open as is reasonable, as often as possible.  Students need frequent and repeated iterations of the complete inquiry process to get it. You scaffold them where they need it but practicing an inquiry skill in isolation doesn’t work (ie writing hypotheses for hypotheses sake).  It is also crucial for the inquiry to center around relevant science content. Soft inquiry built around inane questions doesn’t help students to understand the nature of science

Perplexity – I wouldn’t have known exactly how to describe this until I read dy/dan.  I want my students to discover answers.  That often means encouraging them to work through frustration and uncertainty.  This means answering their questions with more questions.  I used to tell them that I wanted them to be confused but that term never felt quite right.  Confusion isn’t the right word.  Perplexity is.  Look it up.

Relevance - content in science must be relevant to students and to the “real world”.  Examine current events in science, the more local, the better.  Water quality testing and local habitat studies have led to really great student inquiries the past few years in my classes.

Thinking - I want to inspire my students to want to think and think deeply.  I want them to ponder big, important, deep questions.  I want them to consider a variety of ideas and choose which to keep and which to reject based on evidence.  I want them to understand their own thinking; to be metacognitive.  To that end, this year, I’m striving to work in Habits of Mind.


The Pillars

These are the practices that give structure and support to what goes on in the classroom

The court of 1000 pillars (thanks, Bill)

The court of 1000 pillars (thanks, Bill)

Modeling - I dabble in this one but I dabble often.  I’ve never been to a modeling training but I’ve read a lot of the material available from Arizona State University.  For me, it’s more of a mindset and a way to approach inquiry labs in chemistry and physics.  We use whiteboards a lot and have socratic discussions about the whiteboards.  Students use these whiteboards to show their thinking, with words, data and diagrams.  Whiteboards allow students to share thinking and to make the invisible visible.

Argument driven inquiry – this one, I got from the NSTA Science Teacher magazine last year.  I loved it and have adapted it to my purposes.  The basic idea is that kids are testing a question (like, Which antacid is the most effective?), using data to make an argument with whiteboards (there they are again), writing an argumentative lab report (way more interesting than the old standby), and peer revising the lab report.

Whole class inquiry – this one is even more new to me than the last but I just know it’s going to become a staple.  I’ve tried it once already this year in physics in an adapted form and the students and I all loved it.  There are some methods that, once you’ve tried them, you KNOW they fit you and your students.

Ungrading - my goal for this year is to give as much feedback as possible, as often as possible, while withholding evaluation.  My students will get lots of formative assessment and very few grades.  Those grades they do receive, they will assign themselves.  This will be done based on general criteria discussed and agreed upon in class, rather than a rigidly prescriptive rubric.

Technology integration – I like to weave lots of technology into what we do in the classroom while avoiding the trap of technology becoming the focus of what we do.  We use Vernier probeware and video analysis software for many experiments.  Each student has his or her own blog, which will also serve as their electronic portfolio.  I manage resources and communication with Edmodo.  Students also create a variety of multimedia products.  Another goal I have this year is to use more video (for me and for students) and to work in both screencasting and podcasting.

Project Based Learning – students are engaged in long-term, rigorous projects in my class most of the time.  I find that it gives a goal and purpose to every lesson, every activity, every text we read if they can see the connection to the larger goal.  The key is giving the students enough choice and control over the direction of the project to allow them to take ownership of it.  The Buck Institute for Education and Edutopia both have phenomenal resources for PBL.


The Roof over our heads

This is what makes it all work; what gives us shelter and comfort

Safety – Mental, physical and emotional safety are all crucial to make room for students to learn.  I think this is even more important in a classroom built around thinking, inquiry, and collaboration.  Feeling unsafe creates a barrier to all of those things.  I strive for this by demonstrating genuine respect and caring for my students, explaining decisions to them, nurturing a democratic classroom, and intervening when I need to in interpersonal dynamics.

Socratic seminars in science class

I love socratic seminars.  I have done several in the past few years and, every time I do one, I say, “I need to do more of these!”  The students learn so much from these rich discussions, both about the topic and about civil discourse.  Socratic seminars help to set up a positive culture in the classroom, as well as fostering Habits of Mind (Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision, Listening With Understanding and Empathy).

What is a socratic seminar?

A socratic seminar is an informal group discussion where the teacher acts as a facilitator (ideally by only asking questions – and the less, the better) while the students have a discussion.  The discussion can center around a piece of reading, a current news issue, an idea or ideal, or just an engaging question.  The key, though, really is the engagement.  The topic has to be one that students want to talk about – preferably argue about.

a great place for a socratic seminar?

a good place for a socratic seminar?

How do you do a socratic seminar?

From the teacher side of things, I like to plan a few key questions to ask about the topic of discussion (I may or may not ask all of them).  The students will have some background knowledge prior to the seminar – could be from a text that they read, a video that they watched, a lab, whatever.  I like to have the students bring their chairs into a large circle (you might have to clear space for this – or do it outside; outdoor socratic seminars rock!).  You then set the ground rules for the discussion (no interrupting, be respectful, no side conversations, etc.) and ask the BIG QUESTION – the main topic of the discussion.

What is it like?

When it’s working, the students are arguing respectfully, agreeing and disagreeing, building on each others’ points, and referring to prior knowledge or creating new knowledge collectively.  Once in a while, I remind students of protocols or norms if they get too fired up.  Occasionally, I throw out another question to keep the conversation going or steer it back on task.  I do my best to resist the urge to state my knowledge or opinions on a matter – even if they are begging for it.  It’s not about me!

Okay, I get it.  But, in SCIENCE class???

What better way to help students to understand the process of science than to get them arguing?  The key is to teach them to challenge each others’ claims respectfully (How do you know that? What is your evidence? Where did your evidence come from? Is it dependable evidence?)

How do I start?

You start by doing three of them.  With the same class.  Relatively close together.  Not one or two.

Yes, three.  One for you to screw up and for them to be confused.  A second one for you to facilitate better and for them to still be confused.  A third to get a decent feel for how this should really go.