Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, coauthors of “The Right Questions,” in the October issue of Educational Leadership (online only), explain why it’s important for people to learn to ask their own questions.
Many educators have had the experience of coming up with a “solution” to a problem that unintentionally undermines learning. Our own experience happened when we were working with parents in a low-income community to increase their participation in their children’s education. Over and over again, they told us that they were not participating because they “didn’t even know what to ask.”
We thought we knew how to solve that problem. We asked the parents to identify specific issues (homework practices, disciplinary policies, class assignments, and so on), and we provided them with great questions to ask. But our solution made things worse; it actually made the parents more dependent on us because they didn’t learn how to develop their own questions.
We’re grateful to these parents for pointing us in the direction of a core challenge that has guided our work since then: How can we teach, in the simplest way possible, the sophisticated skill of question formulation to all people, no matter their level of prior knowledge or education?
After much trial and error, we eventually created the Question Formulation Technique as a way to universalize the teaching of this overlooked skill. The Question Formulation Technique is now being embraced by schools all over the United States, including urban and suburban districts in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, as well as in courses at institutions of higher education such as the University of Pennsylvania and Brandeis University. It’s exciting to see teachers and professors embrace it, but we always keep in mind its humble beginning outside the classroom.
The importance of the ability to formulate questions is now gaining new respect and recognition. In Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner emphasizes how critical it is for students to learn how to ask the right questions, for the sake of education and the overall economy. In A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, business journalist Warren Berger cites innovators and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who reinforce the same message for the workplace: knowing how to ask the right questions is essential for success. Berger quotes Stephen Quatrano, a software architect at Cisco and a board member for the Right Question Institute, who says that “asking questions is a way to organize our thinking around what we don’t know.”
Once students learn how to ask their own questions, they can become active learners in every classroom, no matter the subject. Once they are active learners in the classroom, they can become more creative and independent thinkers. And once they know how to think for themselves, they carry the ability to ask questions beyond the confines of the school building. They are on their way to contributing to a more creative economy and a stronger democracy.