I almost didn’t buy the book. After all, if the change the authors are suggesting is in subtitle, why pay for the explanation? How hard can this be? As it turns out, this book is one I have been recommending to others because it has been very provocative to my thinking and I believe it can help move learning forward for our students.
There is a healthy emphasis today on learner engagement and ownership. It is a good correction—after all, why should we accept that teachers in any Christian school would dull down the amazing creation of a fantastic Creator by teaching in ways that do not engage students? Furthermore, by helping students to ask their own questions, we are respecting them as image-bearers and respecting their minds. We are not only engaging them in the moment with worthy questions, but we are teaching them a lifetime technique that will serve them for years to come. We are helping them to think more clearly and to unlock their own motivation for further learning.
The epiphany for me, and why I am so ardently recommending this book, is the movement from the perfect “essential question” formulated by the teacher to really solid questions raised by the learner. If learners own the question, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated to continue their learning rather than merely responding to a teacher-posed question. What this book seeks to do is to spell out a process for working with students to help them develop worthy questions. Please understand that the teacher is not abdicating responsibility and is playing a key role in this process; we are simply shifting the focus a bit from teacher to learner. The teacher is still the one who is starting the student off with a “question focus” and setting the rules for good question development, playing the role of critical and encouraging guide.
The authors point out that by utilizing the “question formulation technique” (QFT) students actually practice three thinking abilities:
- Divergent Thinking—thinking about a wide range of possibilities and ideas
- Convergent Thinking—analyzing and synthesizing information and ideas, “boiling things down” in search of an answer or conclusion
- Metacognition—being able to think about your own thinking and learning
All three of these skills are practiced and mastered in the QFT process. Without going into detail (I suggest you buy the book!), here are the steps of the process, along with a brief explanation.
- Question Focus. As teachers, we still need to focus on the “takeaways” for a unit or topic under consideration. What are the big ideas that we want students to walk away with and wrestle with for a lifetime? Our authors suggest that it is better to move from a traditional prompt or question to a “question focus,” or QFocus, for short. This QFocus needs to be clear, brief, and simply stated. It is not a question, and it should provoke new lines of thinking. It also does not reveal teacher bias. After the teacher formulates a QFocus that allows her to reach the desired outcomes for what she is teaching, the students proceed with the steps that follow.
- Produce Questions. The book describes four rules that students are taught to follow in this step as they generate questions.
- Improve Questions. Students determine whether questions are open- or closed-ended, and learn the value of each kind of question.
- Prioritize Questions. Students choose, on an individual or group basis, what their most important questions are and explain why.
- Use Questions. Questions selected as the best by student and teacher can be the starting point for many different kinds of purposes and assignments—papers, speeches, projects, etc.
- Reflect on Learning. Students are asked what they have learned about their own learning through this process.
The authors point out many benefits that they have experienced using this approach with students. They report that students seem more energized, more self-starting, and have increased confidence in knowing how to learn content and in developing lifetime learning skills. Teachers report improved student participation in group and peer learning process and improved classroom management; they also report this technique is an effective strategy to engage at-risk kids.
After reading this review, should a teacher use the essential questions approach or move to QFT? I would say that whether a teacher is using the essential questions approach or the QFT approach, the emphasis is still on identifying the key big ideas that must be dealt with by the learner. In a recent blog post, Grant Wiggins (one of the authors of the “Understanding By Design” model that advocates essential questions) sees the essential question as the starting point, and the eliciting of student questions as part of the process. I agree with his assessment; students may need a more gradual transition, wrestling first with the complexity of an engaging teacher question and using that as a model, before forming and generating their own questions.
In thinking about the value of a book about pedagogical practice, I usually hold two criteria in my mind and will seek to explain and apply them here. First, does the practice advocated reflect biblical principles explicitly or implicitly in the following ways?
- Increases respect for students as image-bearers of God
- Calls the learner to respond to God’s world
- Engages the learner more deeply in the learning process in the areas of wonder, wisdom/discernment, compassion, and personal response
- Increases respect by the learner for fellow peers
- Increases personal flourishing
Second, does the practice move educational practice and student learning forward?
- Increases student’s competence in using twenty-first-century skills
- Doesn’t necessarily cost a lot of money
- Increases lifetime skill base of the individual
- Engages all learners more deeply in the learning process
In summary, I believe that this is a small, accessible, but important book! It certainly meets the criteria I have listed above and more in terms of both reflecting biblical principles and best practice. In an age where we are seeing more and more how we must help learners know how to learn, the asking of questions is a key skill that they must be taught. This book provides a clear path, process, and examples to help in the equipping of students for a lifetime.
- Wiggins, Grant. “On Genuine vs. Bogus Inquiry: Using EQ’s Properly.” Granted, but . . . 8 Feb. 2013. Blog post. Web. 9 Feb. 2013. <grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/on-genuine-vs-bogus-inquiry-using-eqs-properly/>.