Question Development

Afternoon EHI workshop on teaching students to ask questions.

The Question Formulation Technique, a brief exercise.

Goal: Develop questions that will deepen our understanding of the texts in the conference reader and help us make connections among them.

The QFT begins with a Question Focus. The QF should not be a question; it should be a phrase that provokes or stimulates the asking of questions; it should be simple. It should be geared toward a specific purpose, e.g., writing an essay that ties together all the readings of the conference. If we were developing a QF for EHI 2022 we might consider the following possibilities:

    1. Gathering (just the topic; vague; they could go anywhere with this.

    2. Gathering and alienation (creates a tension, sets an agenda).

    3. Gathering and hope (focused in a different direction).

    4. The folly of Gathering (provocative, more narrow)

Consider: would it be better to do this exercise at the beginning of the week, before we've done the readings or toward the end, after we've done most of them?

Question Formulation Technique, developed by an institute in Cambridge Mass. In following this process students will learn:

    • Some basic principles of question-development through practice rather than lecture.

    • The value of different kinds of questions.

    • That coming up with good questions takes thought and effort; it’s hard, not easy.

    • That the process of developing questions involves thinking about the information/ideas/conundrums the questions are likely to elicit.

    • How the precise phrasing and construction of a question will shape the information/discussion/essay it will generate.

    • To focus on what is important and central to a topic rather than what is tangential. Thoughts on incorporating the QFT in to the Harkness classroom.

Further thoughts on the QFT and teaching students to ask the questions:

    • Questions students generate themselves will lead to greater engagement with the lesson.

    • Use the QFT early in the term and then from time to time, perhaps for homework in study groups.

    • Use QFs on syllabus instead of questions.

    • Use the QFT to generate questions for one day’s discussion or broader questions for a whole unit.

    • Use the QFT to generate questions for a writing assignment. This can be difficult because you might want to give them the writing assignment before they’ve completed all the readings and discussions that will go into the assignment. You can’t devise a good question without having read the relevant texts.

    • Break free of the QFT formula. Develop your own way of discussing questions with students (see mine, below).

Why teachers should still usually ask the questions

    1. The quality and outcome of learning experiences—good class discussions and successful essays—depend on starting with good questions.

    2. The teacher who designed the syllabus and selected the readings can best formulate questions that will get students to unravel the learning objectives underlying those choices.

    3. Teachers are trained and have lots of experience and may have even spent many years or decades in graduate school learning how to frame questions in their disciplines that lead to rich, in-depth inquiry.

    4. Students are not good at asking questions. They focus on trivial things, frame narrow or closed-ended questions, and overlook broad important themes.

    5. We enjoy framing questions and don’t want to give it up. It’s what we do.

    6. See the Michael Milligan write-up in the Discussion Dynamics book (under "Articles of interest): “I invariably have a list of questions—in some sort of order—mapped out as I enter the class each day.” Asking the questions is what the Harkness instructor does.

Why we should give students the job of framing questions (when possible).

    1. All intellectual engagement begins with questions. Asking questions is what intellectually engaged people mostly do. Read these inspirational statements about question-asking by intellectuals.

    2. Knowing how to ask good questions is empowering. And some questions ARE better than others.

    3. Students will develop their ability to ask good questions only by practicing doing it.

    4. It makes education even more student-centered.

    5. Students will discover important and valuable themes in the assigned readings that the teacher did not think about.

    6. There are times when students have to ask their own questions, when the teacher can’t do it for them: e.g. research papers & life.

When not to let the students ask the questions:

    1. Without helping them develop some question-asking skills.

    2. At the start of every class or every exercise (unless content is not important—it takes up a lot of time).

Conclusions: The teacher should not simply give the role of asking questions over to students but should give them some experience with asking questions in both discussion and writing essays. Develop your own methods or adaptations of the QFT.

Further resources:

QFT was created by the Right Question Institute, an organization based in Cambridge, Mass., dedicated to teaching the skill of developing questions, provides free, open source documents at its web site, linked from here, and sells a book: Make Just one Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press, 2011). I recommend attending one of their workshops. Here is a quick description of the QF Technique.

Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas 2014 ("You don't learn unless you question," Joi Ito, 24).

Prof. Patrick Rael, "How To Ask Good Questions." From a Bowdoin College professor's excellent guide to Reading, Writing and Researching for History.

On this website (BillJordanHistory):

Ask Better Questions: A typology of questions I developed for writing and discussing history

Questions for Discussion: Questions you can ask at the table.

Doing History is Asking Questions: Smart folks agree--it's all in the questions.

At my blog (Thinking While Teaching): A teacher’s confession: There ARE stupid questions. It's true.