I have been an elementary school educator for 32 years. I began my career in Britain before moving to North County San Diego. I have worked for the Encinitas Union School District since 2000.
Throughout my career I’ve been motivated by the same two things: teaching students to question everything and to advocate for themselves. The Question Formulation Technique has been an important piece of that work since I discovered it a few years ago. I began using this strategy with my first graders and found initial success. I then got a position as a TOSA (teacher on special assignment) for my district. This transition gave me the golden opportunity to develop my knowledge and practice of the QFT from kindergarten to sixth grade students, as I would be working with all of these grades.
Having moments on my journey where I am completely wrong has helped me arrive at many important lessons. On one occasion, I was asked to do a QFT lesson with a fifth-grade class, and I assumed they were just about to begin their unit on oceanography. We got to work with groups, asking questions and writing their questions on chart paper. My mistake was they had just finished the unit. Students weren’t particularly curious about the topic I’d selected. To my surprise, they had even more questions, as they were coming from a place of “I know this about the ocean, but what about …” I felt crummy, but this experience led to a question of my own: Do we always begin a unit with the QFT, or can we challenge students to do it at the end? I began experimenting with using the QFT mid-unit. I have since learned to embrace that “crummy” feeling when it happens, as it is what new learning feels like. Our brains respond to structured challenges in a safe environment, and educators should actively help students engage in the “crummy” challenges without reaching a frustration point.
Below are some lessons I’ve come to learn through trial and error about how to build and strengthen student curiosity.
Lesson 1: Keep the QFocus stimulating yet clearly on topic.
Beginning a unit with the QFT in a first-grade class takes a lot of preparation on the teacher’s part to “train” students to ask questions which are on topic. How many of us have been in a K-2 classroom discussion and asked for “any questions,” been presented with a sea of hands raised, then said, “We don’t have time for stories,” and only one hand remains in the air? Younger students do indeed ask more questions than older students, but in my experience it’s the quality and focus of these questions that requires facilitating. Here is where the QFocus choice is crucial on the teacher’s part. A clear, intriguing Question Focus must be chosen to create wonder about the topic or subject matter, unless you want lots and lots of questions (which you will get from early learners) about lots of different things. Below is an example of one of my first QFT attempts with a kindergarten class. Note the sporadic questions about the topic of sea shells.
There were a brilliant array of inquisitive minds in the class and the questions came thick and fast. The one-word QFocus (“different”) gave them endless possibilities but perhaps not quite enough focus or specificity.
Lesson 2: Rules of the QFT need to be taught and practiced.
You need to explicitly teach younger students the process of asking questions and “train” them with frequent 10-to-15-minute practice sessions where everyone learns how to nurture a positive and friendly class culture. Below are some adaptations I’ve made to the QFT rules, as well as new additions I’ve had success with.
Rule #1: Ask as many questions as you can
- “You can whisper a question to an elbow partner and they can ask it for you.”
- “If you have a connection to a question, add to it by asking another question, or point silently to yourself with your thumb to show ‘I think that too.’” The teacher can then acknowledge the connections without interrupting the flow of the question session.
- Have students come up with their own questions by themselves first, then have them join a group so they can bring something to the party.
Rule #2: Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions
- “Sharing, kindness, and empathy (what does that big word mean?) are important.”
- “You might be wrong, and that’s okay. In fact, making mistakes is how we learn.”
- “If you think you know the answer, you are never allowed to blurt it out.” How hard is it to “un-teach” a concept to a class of first-graders who now think the sky is blue because a child yelled out, “It’s because of the ocean”? There are some brilliant read alouds on this subject. My Mouth is a Volcano, by Julia Cook, is one example.
Rule #3: Write down every question exactly as it is stated
- Teacher writes down the questions exactly how they were asked.
Rule #4: Change any statement into a question
Lesson 3: Continue creating curiosity and generating questions with other tools.
I have also explored the idea of “what do you wonder?” which is another way of creating curiosity and generating questions.
The Wonder Wall lesson started with a QFocus depicting various images of shadows and light sources (the sun, flashlights, etc). As the students wrote their wonders down, they stuck them on the Wonder Wall so anyone could read the questions. We then went outside on a sunny day and videoed the students’ shadows dancing. I call this lesson “Shadownoodle” (an idea I adapted from the GoNoodle videos), as we put the videos to music later. If students had answers to their questions, they wrote the answers down in a notebook. Some students had more questions, so they wrote these on sticky notes. The sticky notes stayed up during the entire lesson and throughout the unit (six lessons). If they changed their minds about any of their questions, we discussed this as a whole class: “First I thought this… now I know this…because of this…”
Lesson 4: Affirm all students’ questions in an equitable way.
Sometimes students are intimidated by a number of things going on in the classroom which prevent them from asking questions. In the 1970s and 80s in Britain, I was a quiet student who needed more time to learn and to respond. It was a period where — in my school at least — you did it right the first time, and quickly, or else. I developed a strategy: I would wait and only raise my hand in the “pack” of hands in the middle, careful not to be first, but definitely not last, because most of the time I didn’t know the answer.
I didn’t realize other people did that until I read an interview with the brilliant Susan Cain called “Quiet: Susan Cain on Approaching Introverted Students.”
“With the extroverts, they’re raising their hands,” Cain said. “They’re telling you what they know, what they don’t know. They’re giving you a very fun back-and-forth. It’s just easier. An introverted student is sitting in the class. Their faces might seem impassive, so you have no idea. Are they engaged or are they not?”
My own experience as a student, along with insight from Cain, has informed my approach to affirming all students’ contributions. I joined another teacher in a QFT activity with fourth- graders about earthquakes. We found an image for our QFocus of a building in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia. This amazing structure was built in the year 537 and has withstood countless earthquakes. A brilliant thing I learned was to respond to students’ questions by simply saying “thank you,” instead of using the phrase “good question.” Think about it: if that student’s question was “good,” does that make the other students’ questions bad? Once I changed my strategy and said “thank you” during our QFT sessions, more and more students began to ask and write down questions.
Another facilitation move I’ve experimented with — and originally created by accident — is labeling questions with students’ names.
In my experience, early learners are often motivated by seeing their name written on the board, whereas anonymity can be freeing for older students. I was working with a class of first graders and they were reluctant to ask questions. I decided to write a student’s initials by their question on the chart paper. Then, when we ran out of space, we added sticky notes and I wrote their names on each one. The atmosphere in the session immediately changed, and the questions came quick and fast. The students felt that their questions mattered. The example to the right, about owls, shows this in action.
Alternatively, I’ve found that ensuring anonymity has been a great way for older students to share their many questions without fear of peer pressure. For instance, when I use the whiteboard tool on the Nearpod app, I use their feature to “hide students’ names.”
Lesson 5: Have a plan to help older students become open to curiosity again.
Creating a positive, “sharing without judging” classroom culture is vital for an effective QFT.
Peer pressure and fear of ridicule are obviously part of why the number of students asking questions decreases in fourth through sixth grade, but there’s more. I have been in sixth-grade classrooms where one comment was, “Ask him, he knows everything.”
Everything? So you’re 11 years old and you’re done?
Another blocker to questions in grades four to six is the idea that “I’m so smart, I don’t have to ask questions…” A complete oxymoron. A wonderful fourth-grade student named Daniela makes this point beautifully.
It is, indeed, the opposite, Daniela.
I created a lesson called “I don’t know everything yet” (I.D.K.E.Y), which I can gladly share (feel free to DM me on Twitter). It is based on the premise that once you give yourself the growth mindset gift that you cannot possibly know literally everything, it is not only a blessed relief, but opens your mind to become curious again. One example I give is, “Without using a device, tell me all about Greenhill, England.”
Is there a place with that name or did I just make it up? Guessing is not knowing — there’s a huge difference — so what questions do you have?
Connecting with students’ passions is another way to springboard the QFT process.
The lessons I teach are purposefully designed to reignite dormant curiosity. I worked with fourth-grade students on the topic of energy in science. One student said to me, “I know everything about energy already.” When I looked into her eyes, I could see that what she was really saying was, “I don’t like this topic, why should I care about energy? I’m bored. Leave me alone.” I then asked her what she really loved to do outside of school. It turns out she was mad about horses. I asked her if horse riding had anything to do with energy. She picked up her iPad and we searched together. She had questions. A lot of questions. She went on to find out how the energy in a horse’s feed affects its performance in dressage competitions, and she loved creating a project about it and sharing it with the class.
As my journey continues, I will embrace the crummy whenever I encounter it and hopefully I have the growth mindset to seek the crummy out. I love the QFT and I also love learning how to change it, play with it, and use it in unusual ways to help grow curiosity and wonder.
It’s my opinion that, as educators, we have a massive responsibility to implement teaching strategies that focus the brilliant array of questions K-2 students ask and to kick open the door for third-to-sixth-grade students to have a comfort zone in which to explore once more.
One prompt I say to older students is, “Let’s talk about all the brilliant inventions from all the people who didn’t ask questions, and quit after their first failure.” There aren’t any, is the answer.
Hopefully, when these students are grown-ups, they will have asked enough questions and not quit because they feel crummy.
And will have changed the world.
See more like this:
- QFT in the Elementary Classroom: Top 3 Resources
- QFT in the Elementary Classroom: A Collection of Examples
- Visit the Teaching + Learning Resources Page for more curated resources
About the author: James Staton is currently a teacher on special assignment for the Encinitas Union School District in North County San Diego, California. He’s originally from Sheffield, England, and began teaching in 1990 in the UK. In 1996, he participated in the Fulbright Education Program and also met his wife; they were married in 1998. He moved to the United States in 2000 and was hired to teach fifth grade at La Costa Heights Elementary the same year. He loves learning about the QFT and how it empowers K-6 students. Find him on Twitter @EduStaton.