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Encouraging and developing questioning skills
Learners writing their questions on the board.

Whilst looking online for new approaches to encourage learner questioning, I found the Right Question Institute. They suggest that questioning is not a skill that learners are routinely encouraged to undertake, and is one that is often not explicitly taught. A strategy that they have developed to address this is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), which encourages learners to formulate and articulate their own questions.

In this post I will briefly outline the steps involved in the QFT, full details of which can be downloaded from the Right Question Institute (it is free to sign up). I will then describe my first attempt at using this approach in class, which produced some good questions, along with a few amusing ones!

Summary of the QFT

1. The question focus – this can be anything that is used to stimulate learners’ questions, for example an image, a video, or an article.

2. Produce questions – based on the question focus, learners are instructed to:

  • Ask as many questions as they can
  • Don’t stop to answer, judge, or discuss
  • Write down every question exactly as stated
  • Change any statements into questions

Once questions have been generated, learners could write them up on flipchart paper, on the board, on Post-It notes etc.

3. Improve questions – Learners are encouraged to improve the questions. This could include, for example, a discussion around closed versus open questions, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

4. Prioritize questions

Learners review the question list and choose the three questions that in their opinion are most important.

5. Reflect

Have learners reflect on the original question focus, what has been learned so far, and discuss how this relates to the topic at hand.

The QFT involves a shift in practice, where learners ask questions instead of the teacher. Three key thinking abilities are encouraged with this approach:

  • Divergent thinking, which may be broader, go off on a tangent, incorporate other topics, or make links beyond the classroom.
  • Convergent thinking, which allows learners to focus and prioritize.
  • Metacognitive skills, encouraging learners to think about thinking, how to ask questions, which questions are important and why.

The learner-generated questions can be used for a variety of purposes, including to:

  • Guide lesson planning
  • Increase engagement and ownership
  • Demonstrate inquiry in the classroom
  • Stimulate a fun introduction to a topic
  • Be a driving question for project-based learning
  • Make the classroom more democratic, and give learners more of a voice
  • Encourage study skills, rather than simply ‘delivering’ content

Using the QFT

I recently tried out the QFT with some of my Year 13s – they are Thai students who receive the majority of their lessons in English. This term we are taking an in-depth look at evolution. I begin this topic with a peer-teaching assignment based around the evidence for evolution. Learners work in small groups, with each group focusing on a particular strand of the evidence for evolution: fossil evidence, morphological evidence, molecular evidence and so on. I decided to try out the QFT as an engagement activity at the start of this assignment.

The question focus was simply a pair of images: photos of a platypus, and of a ‘crocoduck’ – a Photoshopped image of a duck with a crocodile’s head. The aim was for students to formulate questions based on their thoughts about these two images, and how they may relate to questions around the evidence for evolution.

There were some good questions that came up, for example:

  • If these two have the same ancestor, why do they evolve to adapt to environment differently?
  • Can crocodiles fertilize with ducks?
  • Are these two animals related to one another?
  • Is there a crocoduck in real-life, and will it be carnivore or herbivore?
  • How can (the crocoduck) balance its body.
  • Does the platypus live in water?
  • Does the crocoduck fly?

There were also a few amusing questions:

  • What software was used to Photoshop the picture (of the crocoduck)
  • What the hell do they eat?
  • Is this the creation of an evil organization?
  • Has science gone too far? Illuminati confirmed!

On reflection, this was a fun and engaging activity, which did produce some good questions. Due to time constraints I was unable to spend much time with the students in terms of refining and improving their questions. However, when asked to prioritize the questions that they considered most interesting or useful, they chose the questions I would have also chosen, such as the first one in the top list above.

Another thought that has occurred to me since doing this activity is to repeat it towards the end of the course, possibly with a different artifact as the question focus. Hopefully the questions asked will be somewhat more sophisticated and the students will gain an appreciation of just how much they have learned.

I would definitely use this approach again, although I would use this particular example slightly differently, such as an engagement device prior to an assignment based around natural selection, adaptation, and environmental selective pressure, given the questions it elicited. In general though I found the QFT to be engaging for learners and very useful for generating questions.


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