In attempting to find a viable and relevant topic to look at as a focus for my Master’s work (M.Ed in Educational Leadership at Vancouver Island University), it didn’t take long for me to pinpoint the notion of student questioning. Having the good fortune of working in a school environment that embraces a very clear stance on inquiry as best practice, we are always looking, as a staff, for ways to improve upon our learning and teaching here at Cypress Park Primary.
As I neared the end of my first year of study, the idea of initiating and sustaining student engagement throughout inquiry activities was becoming a prevalent topic in discussions I was having with the other members on staff.
Many of us wondered out loud if it would be possible to help our learners assume more and more responsibility for their learning from the outset of our inquiry learning engagements.
Immediately, I was reminded of a day a few months previous when Dr. Linda Kaser, co-Leader of the Networks of Inquiry and Innovation, handed me the following book and uttered the simple words, ‘I think you are going to find this useful':
In it, the authors, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, affirm that education can be transformed if students, rather than teachers, assume responsibility for posing questions. Moreover, they argue that formulating one’s own questions is the single most essential skill for learning.
To help support the learning for the students in my class, I made the decision to use the protocol that makes up the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) within my Master’s work. My hypothesis is that when learners learn to ask more meaningful and relevant questions, it will enable them to develop a stronger sense of ownership of their inquiry learning.
To this end, I posed the question that ‘if I consistently engage my learners in the QFT process, in what ways will their questioning behaviours change?’
Fast-forward a few months to the initial lesson where I was officially introducing the QFT to my students. To be fair to these curious and keen Grade 2 learners, I had provided some previous scaffolding without letting them know to what end it might support their development with this new and exciting protocol.
This included four different lessons; two in which I asked the questions, ‘Why do we ask questions?’ and ‘How do we ask questions?’, a third lesson during which I implemented a modified version of the QFT without a formal introduction, as well as a fourth lesson in which I asked the students to brainstorm as many question words as they could.
In the first lesson towards the beginning of the school year, I began with the question, ‘Why do we ask questions?’ and simply invited any thoughts or observations from the students. Here were their offerings:
- So you get smarter and smarter, and you’re full of ideas
- If we don’t understand something, you have to ask questions to understand it
- To help us learn more
- So that we can answer them to find out like, ‘How many bones in the body?’
- If we don’t know something, then you can ask someone like, ‘What is your name?’
- Without questions, it would be much harder to learn stuff
- When you ask questions, you learn more and stay safer
- So people can tell you how things work like, ‘How do clouds move?’
- If we don’t ask questions, then we can’t think of anything
- If we don’t ask questions, we won’t be smart enough to be an IB student
In my opinion, it is evident from their responses that they have a strong foundational understanding/perspective for inquiry learning. This lesson was followed up a few days later when I asked the question, ‘How do we ask questions?’, to which the students responded:
- Put your hand up and tell them what your question is
- Don’t just shout it out
- We use question words at the start, like ‘how’
- You think of something you want to know and then it becomes a question
- You can know how to ask questions if you read books and you study
- You put a question mark at the end
By looking at these responses, I felt that the students were equipped with a reasonable understanding of the importance of questioning, so I decided to unofficially try out the QFT with the students by offering them the following question focus (Qfocus) to consider, ‘Asking questions feeds our brains’.
Without giving them any details of the process including the name or how it works, I simply asked the students to come up with any questions that would help them to better understand this statement. To my pleasant surprise and with no prompting, they came up with the following five questions:
- What does it mean?
- How is it going to work?
- How does it actually feed our brains?
- Why does it feed our brains?
- How does it help us learn?
To be fair to the learners, before I introduced the essential elements of the QFT, I decided to review and gauge their knowledge of words that are used to begin questions. Once again, I was very pleased with the variety of words (19 in total) they produced in a short period of time: when, where, will, how, if, who, have, what, does, really, can, I wonder, do, are, is, why, would, could, should?
One of the key observations that I made in each of these previous 4 lessons was that in spite of the fact that these students were young primary learners (6/7 years old in Grade 2), they demonstrated extremely high level and acute listening skills. This was observed in two ways: first, there were very few repetitions of ideas, and when this did occur, the students were, in my opinion, still genuinely engaged; second, and very impressively, the students listened carefully to each other’s ideas and were able to build off these ideas to offer new ideas and/or perspectives.
At this point, it seemed like the right moment to formally introduce the QFT to the learners. Given that one of my primary objectives is to observe the impact that the students’ questions have on the learning process, I decided to choose a Qfocus that was aimed at launching a whole class unit of inquiry in the area of Matter in Science.
Previously, the central idea (big idea) for this unit has been ‘Matter is everywhere and has the ability to change under certain conditions’. I decided to alter it ever so slightly at the same time as maintaining the essence of the central idea, which would allow the students to potentially and hopefully draw out and make connections to the key concepts for this unit: form, change and causation. Therefore, the new Qfocus became ‘Matter is everywhere and can change over time’.
I maintained the specific concept word change in hopes that the students would be able to formulate questions that would help them to think of further questions to explore the other two concepts in more depth. The concept of change, in my experience, is much more obvious to the students throughout this unit of study as they participate and engage in a series of experiments where they are able to see the change firsthand. Therefore, it would be advantageous for the students to focus on the concept of form by identifying and labeling the various states of matter and their properties as they discover them, as well as the concept of causation which will allow them to investigate the factors and conditions by which matter can change through their observations and investigations.
After introducing, explaining and discussing the framework and rules for the QFT (see Figures 1 & 2), as well as reviewing the relevant information from the previous lessons, it was time to present the students with new Qfocus.
It was not the fact that there happened to be 4 teacher colleagues in the room watching this initial lesson (they were visiting the different classrooms in our school to observe how we engage our learners in the inquiry cycle), but rather it was the anticipation of what was to come as I introduced the Qfocus to the students. Although I was feeling quite confident that they were aptly prepared to provide some thoughts, comments and/or questions, I still found myself wondering quietly to myself, ‘What if I have completely misjudged or miscalculated? What then?’
Much to my excitement, this nervousness only lasted about 5 -7 seconds, which felt like an eternity in the moment, as a hand went up to offer the first question, ‘Why does it change?’. From there, the students proceeded to offer up a series of thoughtful and relevant questions:
In my estimation, these are some fantastic questions for a group of grade 2 learners. Now, I could say that the support and guidance in the previous lessons is what made the difference, but that is only partly true. I could also say that this new and very clear protocol for generating and formulating questions is directly responsible, but again, that would only be partly true. In fact, these are contributing factors, however, it became more evident to me in listening to this young group of confident and communicative learners that we are already doing a fantastic job at the Kindergarten and Grade 1 level here at Cypress Park in honing the beginning and developing questioning skills in our students. So in the spirit of true reflection and desire to learn and grow, I feel obliged to quickly consider how the Question Formulation Technique can be used most effectively to support the growth in inquiry learning for our students.
To this end, I consider the 3rd and 4th steps in the QFT. Given that these learners appear to be quite skilled in the first two steps (producing and improving upon their questions), I feel it will be most helpful and beneficial to spend a more significant amount of time having the students first prioritize then determine how their questions can and should shape the inquiry activities. In re-considering the nature and breadth of their questions, I feel very confident in saying that the coming six weeks of learning in the area of Science (Matter) are shaping up to offer the students many opportunities to assume full responsibility for their learning. At the end of the course of study within this unit, I look forward with great anticipation and excitement to being a fly on the wall during the discussion where the students review these initial questions.