My QFT Journey: Putting Students’ Minds into Motion with their Questions

by James Brewster

I’m proud to serve as the U.S. History teacher at the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Austin, Texas, a 6th-8th grade, Title I campus. My students don’t always see themselves reflected in the subject I teach and don’t always feel like they have agency in their learning. With that in mind, I was on a quest over the summer of 2015 to find a way to give my students a voice in their learning. My only question was, “how?” It is a challenge to cover nearly 400 years of history in seven months. I often feel like time pushes me to cover material too quickly and without the depth needed for true historical context and understanding. While scouring the internet, I stumbled upon the Right Question Institute (RQI) website and discovered information about the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). Thinking back to this by-chance encounter I am reminded of a saying by the art instructor Bob Ross, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.”

Once the school year started, I had all but forgotten about the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). Until one morning after quietly listening to me lecturing about the impact of Spanish colonization on Native Americans, a student, JT asked, “Mr. Brewster, how do we know all this? I mean, how do we know that this all really happened?” With that one question, I felt the power of student investment and remembered what I had discovered over the summer. That evening, I began to unpack QFT for use in my classroom. I am so thankful I did, as I’ve seen my students become more self-confident and engaged in a learning environment where the acquisition of knowledge and critical inquiry is applauded instead of ridiculed.

Helping my students find their voice through
questioning has led directly to their academic achievement. The level of student growth over the last five months has been unbelievable. Where before, I was the only one asking questions, now my students openly ask their own questions and will often stay after class to deepen their understanding. As their knowledge of questioning grows, they have even come to comment on the level and types of questions that I ask them. In fact, I was a bit taken by surprise when, during a formative assessment, “That was a good question, Mr. Brewster,” rang out across the room.

What is it that makes the QFT so impactful in the academic lives of middle schoolers? I believe it stems from giving value to their lack of knowledge. Schools have historically devalued adolescent’s lack of knowledge and inquisitive nature often punishing or overlooking students who “don’t know.” The QFT model shifts that paradigm by encouraging students to ponder in a question safe environment without fear of having asked something, “stupid.” Questions are a way of life in my classroom, and my students know the importance of seeking answers to the things that make them wonder, immediately tying their own experiences into the curriculum.

The QFT is an incredibly versatile tool. An example of its versatility came when I gave my scholars the opportunity to question the 2015 Paris attacks. We had recently completed study of the American Revolutionary Era and the students were quite intrigued by our alliance with the French. Which led to discussion about our present-day relationship with France. The Monday following the attacks, I provided various political cartoons addressing the Paris attacks as their QFocus. They provided a jumping off point for students to question, dialogue, engage, and research the event. While some doubted that such a horrific topic could (or should) be addressed in a middle school setting, I assured them that the QFT method was just the vehicle to use because we had invested time in creating a learning environment that was a safe place for discourse. During the group research process, the students engaged in lively debates including whether the U.S. should allow refugees within our borders—a topic especially relevant to Texans. I was transfixed listening to their well thought out arguments and their utilization of questioning during their discourse, such as, “What if that was you or your mother fleeing a country?” Student empathy is always powerful.

Students’ Priority Questions

Why is the Eifel Tower burning?
Is the New York supporting Paris?
Why Paris and not any other city?
How many people died or got hurt?
Will Obama help Paris?
Why did the Statue of Liberty say “I’m Coming”
Why did ISIS attack?
Why doesn’t France do anything?
Who is ISIS?
Who are they going to attack next?
Does ISIS hate France as well as America?
Who is the founder of ISIS?
Is this propaganda?
Is that related to the recent bombings?

After they researched their questions they created billboards to educate their peers on the tragedy. When the other three classes saw their finished products, they were excited to do their own QFT project.

More recently, I gave untitled lyrics of “Alexander Hamilton,” from the Broadway hit Hamilton to introduce the New Republic era which led to the top rated question “Why wasn’t this guy president?” Beyond that, I’m amazed at how it has changed the structure of my lessons. I now allow more time and opportunities for students to ask questions.

Students with the educational billboards they made for their final project.

One of the most surprising outcomes of implementing the QFT regularly is how it can be used as a classroom management tool to engage students. I’m reminded of one particular Friday when students were constantly being removed from other classes due to disruptive behavior. I experienced none of these issues in my class thanks to the QFT. Students were eager to get to class once they knew it was a QFT day. The QFT helped to channel their energies into close reading and formulating their own questions.

Students working with their questions during the QFT. The lyrics of “Alexander Hamilton” were used as the Question Focus.

Since embracing the QFT, relinquishing control of the classroom discussion to the students was easy once they understood how to ask rich questions. I’m a firm believer in the growth mindset philosophy and learning from failure. Overcoming the challenge to give up control and let the students drive their growth has been transformative. It is truly inspirational to witness our young men exhibit a greater sense of pride, self-confidence, and even clap and bump fists when a classmate is able to articulate an answer to an open ended question. I think the words of my students says it best:

“It helps me by getting me to think about questions on my own. Also, it gets my mind in motion to think about the questions other people make.” LM, 8th grade

“I like creating as many questions as you can in a time limit without being judged because it lets my mind flow.” KB, 8th grade


  1. I am quite intrigued by this method. Questions are the beginning to learning. I am eager to see it in work, however I wonder how this method will work with kindergartners There are many questions in learning phonics and numbers.

  2. Am teaching accounting,economics and business studies and my school is located in remote area all the students are unfamiliar with the subject how do I make them and introduce a topic using QFT?

    • Jesús Alvaro Salinas Cordero says:

      Hi Makananelo, I teach Business as part of the IB Diploma Programme at my school. A good starting point, in my experience, is to focus on the key concepts first, such as Change, Ethics, Globalisation, Innovation, etc as every topic is tightly linked to these concepts.

  3. Sounds quite inspirational! I applaud the teacher for expanding his comfort zone to allow students to question, grow, and think.

  4. Anne Pavlik says:

    I have use the QFT experience and agree with comments made in the article. Students are surprised to hear from classmates that have previously remained silent. The lack of judgement is very reinforcing when engaging all students in the process. I do find developing the Question Focus a challenge and appreciate hearing what others have used. The lyrics from a song—great idea!!

  5. Terri Russo says:

    The use of lyrics from Hamilton to create an environment for implementing QFT made me think about how this could be expanded to include lyrics from the play 1776. Wow!

  6. Hi there, after reading this awesome paragraph i am also happy to share my knowledge here with friends.

  7. Gabriela Ramírez says:

    Since I heard of this method, although I have not yet know the technique, I have started to promote my students to ask their own questions from materials I gave them, and I have been surprised because their questions where even better than mines. Therefore, I`m very excited with the method because I just can`t imagine how good it will be, if even without knowing the method, the simple title, made me think and gave me very good results.

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