Crafting Questions through the Question Formulation Technique

Getting better at using inquiry approaches to learning means honing the skills of asking questions.

An approach that I’ve used with adults and children is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) by the Right Question Institute.

The QFT has been useful for teachers as they embarked on professional inquiries. The strategy has also proved useful to teach to young learners as they developed their own approaches to learning through inquiry. The process can be adapted for any age group. I’ve seen teachers use the QFT with younger PYP students, with appropriate revisions to the language of the process.

As with all skills, rehearsal helps us get better at performing the skill. And, targeted rehearsal with instructional guidance on the process supports how to make the skill stick so it becomes part of the natural repertoire in a learner’s personal learning process.

Why explicitly teach questioning?

The skill of formulating questions bridges the learner to the VUCA world.  In a world where change is exponential, the person who asks questions is able to thrive, notes John Seeley Brown, former chief research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center.

Brown explains:

“If you don’t have that disposition to question, you’re going to fear change. But if you’re comfortable questioning, experimenting, connecting things—then change is something that becomes an adventure. And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running,”

John Seeley Brown

Like all skills, question formulation has its nuanced practice.

The QFT allows for learners to get better at questioning by breaking down the process of creating questions, and thinking about how the questions present pathways to inquiry.

The QFT was created by the Right Question Institute, a nonprofit organization based out of Massachusetts which identifies as a “A Catalyst for Microdemocracy.”

Download the slides you can use with the QFT process at this link.

DOWNLOAD these slides for QFT from our Toolbox Resources by clicking on the link in this sentence.

Here’s the process for the QFT.

This process might work best with working groups of 3-4 people per group. Groups may be asked to assign task leader (keeps the group on task), scribe (writes down questions and other process steps), and actively participating member(s). Roles may rotate each time QFT is used to generate learner questions.

The sequence of steps is important in the process of using QFT to generate learner questions.

The facilitator designs and presents a question focus, keeping in mind the following:

  • The question focus is a statement, not a question.
  • The question focus provokes new lines of thought.
  • The question focus is free from bias.
  • The question focus may be an image, an object, media, quote, illustration, etc.
  • The question focus might have been shown to peers for feedback on its ability to provoke thinking, check for bias, and overall effectiveness as a catalyst for thinking.

Going over the ‘rules’ for the process.

  • Ask as many questions as you can.
  • Do not stop to judge, discuss, edit, or answer any question.
  • Write down every question as it was asked.
  • Change any statements into questions.

Creating questions.

  • Groups generate as many questions as they can without stopping to evaluate or answer questions.
  • Scribe writes down every question exactly as it is stated.
  • Group changes any statements into questions.

Classifying questions.

  • The facilitator pauses the QFT to model two types of questions, open-ended and close-ended questions.
  • Open ended questions are questions that require explanation.
  • Close-ended questions are questions that can be answered with Yes or No.
  • Facilitator might lead a discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of each question type and to look at several examples.
  • Facilitator checks for understanding.
  • The facilitator asks groups to classify questions, labeling them OE (Open Ended) or CE (Close Ended) on the paper on which the scribe has written the groups’ questions.
  • The scribe would label the questions OE or CE as the group classifies them.
  • In this part of the process, the facilitator asks the group to rewrite one open-ended question as a close-ended question and to rewrite one close-ended question so it becomes an open-ended question. This might clearly show understanding of the two types.

Prioritizing questions.

  • Facilitator asks groups to identify the three most important questions in their list and to mark these clearly (with a star or some other symbol) as priority questions.
  • Groups need to provide rationale for their priorities. This may be a useful way to make connections to the question focus for the QFT.
  • Groups share their top 3 questions with the large group, with rationale.

Deciding on lines of inquiry.

  • Groups may decide on lines of inquiry (personal, small group, whole group)
  • There may be discussion on the immediate next steps to begin inquiry.

Facilitator and whole group debriefing.

  • The debrief is useful to deconstruct the process and make visible how the groups were thinking during QFT steps, and what they learned.
  • How did it go for you?
  • What might you have noticed about your thinking during QFT?
  • What might be some of your takeaways?

A facilitator pressure point might be that when the QFT is presented for the first time to learners, it may be difficult not to coach the content of what the groups produce.

The facilitator might keep in mind to coach the process, not the content.

Resources from the Toolbox

Here’s a sample unit planner for MYP 3 Language and literature. The students who co-created this unit’s lines of inquiry had several months’ practice using the QFT.

Feel free to make a copy and adapt for your context.

If you haven’t already, download my free ebook on “Designing Complexity for Learning” – a mini-toolkit to launch approaches to learning in your classroom–as a token of my gratitude for traveling with me as I provoke thinking around what it means to learn how to learn.

To join the tribe of educators who think together to iterate learning for adults and students, simply sign up here.

You will be confirming your email and will receive the password for the free resource from The Learner’s Toolbox.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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