“I’ve got to confess to you that one Sunday afternoon I taught my family in the living room.”
This confession came from Maryann Woods-Murphy, a veteran educator who’s worked in the field for 36 years and was named New Jersey Teacher of the Year in 2010.
Specifically, she was teaching her family the Question Formulation Technique.
“I kept talking about it, and they didn’t really know what it was, and so I said, let’s do a session,” she explained. “So I did the whole PowerPoint, and we did the QFT at home.”
It’s safe to assume most families don’t spend Sunday afternoons conducting classroom simulations with the aid of PowerPoint slides. Woods-Murphy recalled her family’s reaction: “This is really embarrassing.”
Yet hers is the sort of enthusiasm for the Question Formulation Technique that seems to energize teachers who use it. They develop a desire the share the technique with anyone and everyone.
Woods-Murphy has a number of avenues for doing that (family living room aside). She’s currently a consultant with the New Jersey Education Association’s Priority School Initiative, and recently she was a specialist, in the Nutley School District in New Jersey, for gifted and talented students. She spent much of her career as a Spanish teacher in New York City and New Jersey and has served on the board of directors of the National Education Association Foundation and the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. She collaborated with the U.S. Department of Education in 2011 as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and again in 2012 as a Washington Fellow.
She doesn’t get excited about teaching methods unless there’s a good reason.
Her former colleague in Nutley, Robert O’Dell, shares her enthusiasm for the QFT.
“The biggest problem I found with the transition to C3 was getting teachers to come up with good questions in their planning” — Robert O’Dell
Currently a director at the New Jersey Center for Civic Education, he previously spent 37 years with Nutley Public Schools, recently serving as coordinator of social studies in the district, where he oversaw the social studies curriculum for grades K-12. He has also served as president of the New Jersey Social Studies Supervisor Association, which brings together educators from around the state to collaborate on issues related to instruction, assessment, curriculums, and best practices in the field.
In rewriting the social studies curriculum in the state, things are moving away from teaching students through “the old recitation [model]: names, facts, dates,” O’Dell said. Rather, “You’re trying to teach them how to be good citizens.”
The state’s new curriculum is modeled on the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, established by the National Council for the Social Studies, which aims to “build critical thinking, problem solving, and participatory skills to [help students] become engaged citizens.” The framework’s guiding principles state “inquiry is at the heart of social studies.”
Yet imbuing the classroom with inquiry can be a challenge. “The biggest problem I found with the transition to C3 was getting teachers to come up with good questions in their planning,” O’Dell said.
It’s a dilemma he was discussing one day with Woods-Murphy. They were sharing ideas, and Woods-Murphy brought up the Question Formulation Technique, which O’Dell had read about but hadn’t used.
“It dawned on me that the answer had been right in front of me and I hadn’t seen it. She’s the one who made me see it,” he said. “I saw the book” – Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions – “and it was like one of those ‘duh’ moments.”
“It really helped teachers come up with those higher level inquiry questions you need to drive the C3,” he said.
While O’Dell approached these issues from the perspective of an administrator, Woods-Murphy saw these challenges from a teacher’s viewpoint.
“We do not provide clear instructions or protocols to help educators move these practices from a theoretical kind of underpinning to … classroom practices that work for children who are diverse in nature and need lots of attention,” she said.
She added teachers are looking for “systematic, clear protocols” to achieve goals outlined in curriculums such as C3 and others.
Perhaps for that reason, the QFT has spread to other grades and academic disciplines in Nutley.
‘The shift is to student-centered learning, and this fits in’
The Nutley Public Schools district serves a middle-class community outside Newark, about 13 miles by car from the Empire State Building in Manhattan. It’s a place the New York Times said maintains a “small-town character.” With a population of just under 29,000, Nutley is slightly wealthier than the rest of New Jersey, but not by much. The median household income is $88,783, according to U.S. Census figures, compared to $73,702 statewide. The median value of a home, at $363,600, is $47,200 higher than the state average. It has seven schools, including Nutley High School and John H. Walker Middle School, and test scores, like incomes and housing values, are slightly above average, according to the New Jersey Department of Education’s performance report. Two areas where the district excels are in graduation and college matriculation rates. About 95 percent of students graduate from high school within four years, and nearly 86 percent are enrolled in college 16 months later.
When Woods-Murphy and O’Dell offer presentations and workshops about the QFT, they attract teachers from across the spectrum, including math and science. “We worked with all the media specialists. Language. We’ve really taught every subject area,” Woods-Murphy said. At one point the high school principal asked them to do an educator workshop for the whole school.
Teachers undergoing an assessment driven by the Danielson Framework learned the QFT could help them shine.
“Each of us has fanned it out through our networks and worlds to share the practice,” said Woods-Murphy. O’Dell, doing a workshop at Rutgers University, ran into a group of educators from a nearby county who were also using the QFT. “When we got the feedback it was one of the most popular workshops that was run. The teachers loved it,” he said.
O’Dell explained that New Jersey uses a variety of teacher assessment tools, and the Danielson Framework for Teaching is the most common.
“What teachers quickly learned after we presented this was that if you ran an effective QFT in the classroom, on one section of [the Danielson Framework] – it’s actually 3b – you would end up with ‘distinguished practice,’ just given the language,” O’Dell said.
Section 3b of the Danielson Framework pertains to “using questioning and discussion techniques” during instruction, and it considers “quality of questions, discussion techniques, and student participation,” according to Charlotte Danielson’s book, Enhancing Professional Practice, a Framework for Teaching.
Teachers undergoing an assessment driven by the Danielson Framework learned the QFT could help them shine. They’d think, “Here comes Bob to observe my class: QFT! And they were guaranteed at least one distinguished element, and so they ran with it,” O’Dell said.
More important, teachers “found out their students were doing well,” he said. “I had teachers say to me, ‘The students came up with better questions than I did, and then they ran with those questions.’”
“There’s a really important connection with social and emotional learning.” — Maryann Woods-Murphy
It’s the impact on students that Woods-Murphy finds compelling, as well.
“Sometimes shy students will hang back and not share their ideas, and other students will dominate the conversation because they’re highly verbal,” she said. “This protocol allows the students to have a kind of script of what to say and do.”
“Sometimes the students who say very little in typical situations, in typical classroom discussions, may have the most profoundly interesting question of all,” she added. “And so I think there’s a really important connection with social and emotional learning.”
In this light, the QFT offers “respect for neurodiversity” and teaches “protocols for respectful interaction,” she said.
“It allows them to take control of their own learning a little bit. Now they own it,” O’Dell said of what the QFT means for students.
“The shift is to student-centered learning,” he said. “And this fits in.”
Woods-Murphy appreciated the open-source nature of the Question Formulation Technique, with resources and downloads available for free from The Right Question Institute.
“I don’t think I would have believed that when I found this material it would have been more than a few sessions until it started to take shape and until I realized how lacking this is,” she said. “And so I’m filled with the emotion of gratitude.”
“The power of a good idea and a good protocol is far-reaching,” she said.
By Chris Orchard: firstname.lastname@example.org.