It all starts with a good question!

One important step in getting students to direct learning is having their voice selecting areas of study they would be interested in investigating further.

At the beginning of each unit of inquiry, I always have students provide their ‘wonderings’ and try to incorporate them into our unit of study. In the past, I have found that the depth of student questions in Grade 4 is often shallow, asking questions that can often be answered with a quick Google instead of questions that require thought, analysis, and synthesis. Often to get to the deeper questions, I would have to do a lot of probing and massaging and I don’t think the students felt like they owned the questions we had developed.

In the spring, I came across a book via Twitter called “Make Just One Change: Teach Students To Ask Their Own Questions“. It offers a protocol for teaching students how to ask questions and the book contains many examples of teacher who have used this protocol with success. After reading the book, I decided that it was worth trying in my classroom to see if I could improve the quality of questions/wonderings my students where having, and thus improve the unit of inquiry. The website that accompanies the book is The Right Question Institute and they have a great educator resource area. Although the resources on the website are excellent, I would highly encourage still reading the book as it is a quick read that really helps you to visualize implementation in the classroom.

This week we began using the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) to help direct our first unit of inquiry around the theme Who We Are. As this was the first time my students had gone through the QFT and my first time facilitating, I spread the stages over a few days to help focus on understanding each part clearly.

One the first day I began by reviewing the 4 rules for producing questions and talking about why they may be easy or difficult to follow. These rules have been carefully crafted to encourage diversity, and create a safe environment. I created a poster for the classroom to keep it as a visual reminder.

QFT Rules from Right Question Institute

QFT Rules from Right Question Institute

Next, I provided my students with the QFocus: Human survival can be challenging. The QFocus is a simple statement that is connected to the content or concept you are teaching that should elicit questions from students. Spending time defining your QFocus and considering how students might respond to it is critical to the success of the protocol. The Right Question Institute has created a quick worksheet to assist in developing your QFocus.

The students were working in groups of 5 and as I moved around the room it was so interesting to hear the different paths each group was taking. Each group had selected a scribe, and they were working diligently trying to come up with as many questions as they could. After 15 minutes, the kids were all still engaged and excited. During this time, I was reminding students of the rules as they were still getting use to them, and also providing feedback about the effort they were putting forward. I was very careful not to comment quality of  the questions they were producing, so that all questions were equally valued.

I found that this was a manageable stage for my 4th graders to complete in one sitting. It also let me focus on implementing the first stage, and not worry about how to continue ‘properly’.

The next day we began by discussing what a close-ended and open-ended question was. After our discussion, students went through the questions that they generated and decided if they were close-ended (labelled with a C) or open-ended (labelled with an O). Then we discussed  the differences and values of open-ended and close-ended questions. It was very interesting to hear what the students thought about the differences between the two types of questions.  Then the students tried to change their questions from close-ended to open-ended and vice verse.

Discussion of Open-Ended and Close-Ended Questions

Discussion of Open-Ended and Close-Ended Questions

The next day we began by discussing ‘priorities’ and how we make decisions of what needs to be done first or is more important than something else. Then students looked carefully at the questions they had developed and selected the three questions that they felt would help us to learn about our central idea “Access to human rights may improve chances of survival.”

The questions that the class decided where the ‘priority’ based on our unit of inquiry where:

What challenges might you find in building shelters?
What people are most likely to face bad challenges in life?
Where is human survival challenging? What part of the world has the hardest challenges?
How do people survive without food and water?
What will make human survival easier?
How can human survival be challenging?
How does school help survival?
Does science or technology help human survival?
Will it get easier in the future? Will it get harder in the future?
Does pollution effect human survival?
I think that these questions will really help to drive our inquiry forward, and the students feel ownership of them because of the process we have gone through in creating them. I am excited to see where these will take us, and how the QFT can continue to be used as we go through other stages of our inquiry.
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