As Illinois educators work to promote democratic habits and citizenship skills, they see the QFT as one way to address controversial topics in the classroom and guide students’ efforts to take meaningful, informed action in their communities.
By the summer of 2018, around 7,000 people — from seven different schools spread across three states — had taken a pledge created by first-graders in Hillsboro, Illinois, according to Shonda Ronen, their classroom teacher.
It’s an impressive number considering the population of Hillsboro is 6,037.
The pledge was this: “I swear to try my best to include others. I will be an includer.”
It’s part of a club called “Operation Includer NOT Excluder.” The club aims to tackle social exclusion of the sort common in school cafeterias, “where some people exclude others from cafeteria tables,” Ronen explained. A local business donated T-shirts with the club’s slogan: “You can sit with us forever.”
It’s a prime example of how the Question Formulation Technique dovetails with Illinois’s new social studies curriculum standards to support a renaissance in civic education, deeper learning, and promotion of democratic habits.
The message: Even young students are capable of taking meaningful action when, guided by teachers, they ask important questions and take steps to address them.
Questions leading to meaningful action
The club started when Ronen’s first-graders used the Question Formulation Technique, or QFT, to ask questions about an iconic Normal Rockwell painting, “The Problem We All Live With.” It depicts Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old African-American girl, as she is escorted into a New Orleans school in 1960 during school integration.
Ronen presented the painting to her students as a Question Focus — a prompt around which they asked questions using the QFT.
They asked things like, “Who is that girl and why is she important?” Ronen explained, and as their questions progressed, they became a springboard for taking action.
The first-graders felt that “people are excluded today just like Ruby Bridges was excluded back then,” Ronen said. “People still exclude people for different reasons today that aren’t right … so they formed a whole Includers NOT Excluders club.”
She continued: “They took something from the past that they had questions about, and through their inquiry … they tied it to something they could change today.”
“In their own small way they can see, oh, high schoolers are taking our pledge,” Ronen said. “And so it was bigger than them, and that’s why it was a good learning lesson for them.”
Boosting civic education
Another example comes from West Chicago Community High School, where Mary Ellen Daneels taught for 28 years.
Students at the school organized a forum for candidates running for Lt. Governor. “Kids from around our area and other communities came to become informed about the candidates and what they stood for,” Daneels said. Other students at the school organized a voter turnout drive. Many got involved in a “school climate reform” effort. All these projects have one thing in common: They started with the Question Formulation Technique, Daneels said.
Across Illinois, in fact, students are learning to connect the dots between inquiry, social studies, and what it means to be a good citizen. This includes service learning and taking informed action around issues students themselves see as important.
It’s part of a major push for civic education across the state, driven largely by two recent developments. In 2016 Illinois adopted new social studies standards, based on the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards. (Ronen was part of the task force responsible for rewriting them.) During that same year, state legislation came into effect mandating all high school students “complete a stand-alone, semester-long civics course.”
Questions and questioning are key pieces in both the curriculum standards and civic education mandate.
For instance, in her introduction to the Illinois Civic Blueprint, which outlines the case for better civic education, Carolyn Pereira writes, “All students should be engaged and knowledgeable life-long thinkers, who question, discuss, analyze, evaluate, make decisions, and are open to new ideas and information.”
The blueprint’s conclusion, written by Darlene Ruscitti, makes a similar point: “[Students] need to know what it means to be a citizen of this great land — being informed, volunteering, speaking out, asking questions, writing letters, signing petitions, joining organizations, building consensus — working in small and large ways to improve our communities and to enrich the quality of life for us all.” (Emphasis added in both quotations.)
Daneels has been at the center of Illinois’s civic education efforts. She was also part of the social studies standards task force. Now, after nearly three decades in the classroom, she works as Illinois’s lead teacher mentor with the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which is overseeing implementation of the new civic education mandate — offering training, resources and support.
“This new civics law isn’t just what you teach but how you teach it,” Daneels explained. “You must have current and controversial issue discussion in your classroom. You must have service learning or informed action. You must do simulations of democratic processes. And you must have really cogent direct instruction on democratic institutions.”
“All those things lend themselves very well to student voice if it’s done well, and that’s really where the Question Formulation Technique comes in, to scaffold those things,” she said.
Inquiry and questioning also underpin the new social studies standards, which say students at all levels are expected to “identify issues, pose questions, investigate answers, pose more questions, weigh the evidence, come to conclusions, and take action on their learning.” As part of the curriculum, students must “construct essential and supporting questions” to drive inquiry and learning.
Bumper bowling with the QFT
Daneels has incorporated the Question Formulation Technique into her regular teacher training, and she’s reached more than 4,000 teachers “in the last couple of years,” she said.
She compares the QFT to bumper bowling. “If you go bowling, sometimes they’ll put bumpers in the gutters, when you take kids,” she explained, “and those bumpers are key to get the ball to hit at least some of the pins you attempt to hit while bowling.”
She continues: “When you talk to teachers about having kids design questions to guide your inquiry and learning, they kind of freak out. What kind of questions are they going to come up with? This is going to be unmanageable.”
But with the QFT, the Question Focus “is sort of the first bumper … kids are going to generate questions on topics that are aligned with your learning objectives. You’re going to hit some pins.” The act of prioritizing questions is like the second bumper, she said, because students prioritize their questions around instructions and goals provided by the teacher.
“The kid is still throwing the ball down the lane. They’re still hitting some pins, but really that QFocus and how you have them prioritize questions are the bumpers that really keep the ball rolling and hitting the pins that you want them to,” she said.
Democratic habits in contentious times
The structure of the QFT lends itself to democratic and citizenship habits Illinois is trying to impart on young people: things like civil discourse, participation, and having a voice. Daneels said a goal is to help students learn “how to frame questions and have really authentic dialogue with colleagues, how to agree, maybe to disagree, but also how to find areas of consensus and agreement.”
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, associate professor of history and coordinator of the Social Science Teaching Program at Eastern Illinois University, said the new civic education mandate includes the requirement “that we talk about controversial issues, that we teach basic patterns of civic engagement.”
Her program oversees about 30 pre-service teaching students each year who eventually assume teaching jobs in Illinois and other states.
Teaching controversial issues is one area, in particular, where the QFT helps, Laughlin-Schultz said. “I know my own [pre-service] students who are going to become teachers, they are most afraid about teaching controversial issues,” Laughlin-Schultz said, “and they feel better equipped by all of this stuff.”
She elaborated: “The number one thing [my teaching students] would say is they want to be objective and present all sides of an argument,” but that can be “really challenging” in today’s highly politicized times.
Issues like immigration, coercion of terror suspects, or proposals for teachers to carry firearms have become so contentious it’s easy to empathize with teachers who may want to avoid such topics in the classroom.
But students value the opportunity to confront controversial issues on their own terms, and because the QFT puts student-formulated questions at the center of classroom work, it helps remove accusations of bias or agenda-pushing on behalf of the teacher.
In surveys, students have stated “how important it was that they have ownership of these issues … and it starts with the questions that guide it,” Daneels said. When using the QFT to deal with controversial issues, “as an educator I’m kind of above reproach as far as people maybe thinking that I have some sort of agenda that I’m perpetuating in my class with the issues, because the kids are picking the issues, and they’re picking the questions that guide their inquiry.”
That the state mandates this kind of challenging work is important, said Laughlin-Schultz.
“I’m sort of blown away by the fact that in our state standards and legislation about civics [there] is this mandate,” she said in support of what Illinois is doing. “This is your job to do this with your students … and you have legislation to back you up if you have complaints, and there are so many good resources out there about how to do this in a thoughtful, careful, engaged manner.” The QFT is among those resources, she said.
A Sputnik moment
A number of policy advocates, on both the conservative and liberal side of the U.S. political divide, have called the election of 2016 a “Sputnik moment” for civic education in the United States. As Daneels explained, “All of a sudden people came to the realization of, because of other very worthy initiatives, like STEM and the Common Core, social studies sort of took a back seat. And really the initial civic mission of schools was to prepare students for citizenship and civic engagement, so it seems to be reawakening nationwide.”
“I think the stakes have never been higher, speaking as a person as well as an educator,” said Laughlin-Schultz about the need to boost civic education in schools.
Illinois’s civic-education resource site, illinoiscivics.org, notes, “The civic mission of schools is not a new concept. Our nation’s public schools were founded to develop citizens with knowledge, and the rights and responsibilities of self-governance. Yet formal civic education has almost vanished from the curriculum in most schools.”
The site lists “six proven practices” that lead to “well-rounded civic learning”:
- Classroom instruction in topics like history, economics, geography, law, and democracy
- Discussion of current events and controversial issues
- Service-learning, where students’ classroom learning is tied to community service projects
- Extracurricular activities
- School governance, where students have meaningful participation in the management of their school
- Simulations of democratic processes, such as mock legislative deliberations.
Illinois schools committed to these six best practices are able to join a growing network of “Democracy Schools.” West Chicago Community High School, where Daneels taught, is one of the state’s original Democracy Schools.
It’s in this context that, when she first learned about the QFT “several years” ago, Daneels’ initial reaction was, “Oh my gosh, that would be perfect for our government simulation, because kids were picking issues they were kind of interested in, but they weren’t really rooted in very much.”
She gave a hypothetical example: Students might propose mock legislation to legalize marijuana, but they wouldn’t be able to identify “the root cause or issues that legalizing marijuana, for example, would address.”
“When I saw the Question Formulation Technique I thought this would be a great tool for our kids to use in a simulation for whatever their public policy issue is — to come up with great questions that guide their research and also their conversations with one another,” Daneels said.
Ronen hopes the present-day renaissance in civic education and social studies is welcomed at the elementary school level, noting, “I think it takes a lot of professional development as far as rethinking elementary teachers’ view of what social science is.” In the past, teachers thought about social studies as “just history alone,” she said. “So being able to connect it to what’s happening today and with what our students are actually interested in and engaged with” is important. She said the QFT is a useful tool to help make that happen.
More “aha moments”
Beyond the renewed push for civic education in Illinois (and elsewhere), the QFT has helped teachers engage students and support curriculum standards in other academic areas.
Ronen said her first graders get excited when they use the QFT. “They love it,” she said, “because when they go through the process it’s their questions, it’s their answers … I see a whole lot more ‘ahas’ from my students than I ever did before” – a reference to the sort of ‘aha moments’ students experience when they suddenly understand key ideas and information.
As an elementary school teacher, Ronen was also involved in shaping Illinois’s science standards, based on the Next Generation Science Standards, which also emphasize questions and questioning.
“You’re showing your students some type of scientific phenomenon, they’re asking questions around that QFocus, getting into the Question Formulation Technique,” which leads to essential and supporting questions, she said. Many times these questions become the foundation for scientific experiments.
The QFT works well with English Language Arts standards, she said. At the elementary school level, when students are first learning to read and write, the act of writing down questions ties to basic literacy skills. Beyond that, the ability to ask and answer key questions about a text are central to the state’s ELA standards.
“How, as a teacher, you help your students become both curious and engaged with the subject matter, as well as able to produce good questions, I think is a challenge,” Laughlin-Schultz said. “I think that [the QFT is] very helpful in showing what the standards are actually asking us to do.”
“I think this” – the QFT – “fits really nicely into showing how you do that and engage students in higher order thinking and in analyzing … and in working with each other,” she said.
Moreover, the QFT can help teachers do well during their own evaluations, according to Daneels.
In Illinois, teachers are evaluated using the Danielson Framework, she said. The framework assesses teachers in part on how they use “questioning and discussion techniques” during classroom instruction. “I always make the connection between the QFT and the Danielson Framework,” she said. “It’s really tough to get distinguished in that category, and tools like the QFT do that.”
Beyond pedagogy, as students learn to generate their own questions, collaborate, and take ownership of their own learning, “agency is developed,” Daneels added. This makes “connections to social-emotional learning competencies” as well.
By Chris Orchard: firstname.lastname@example.org