As an International Baccalaureate (IB) science teacher, my job is not only to instill subject-specific content, but to cultivate the skills of exploration and question formulation. Because of this, something that is asked among IB teachers all over the world is, “How can we get students to ask good questions?” I have found that the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is aligned with these aims of the IB curriculum. Below is how you can bring this technique to your school too.
IB science teachers: Try out this simple and impactful routine
Within International Baccalaureate guidelines for science, students are asked to not only design a quality investigation, but also to demonstrate independent thinking, initiative or creativity within their choice and design of experiment. This is called the Internal Assessment: students individually create a research question, design a methodology to collect data, and analyze their findings. The routine below, based on the QFT, is something I carry out long before the students ever start their Internal Assessment. I use this routine multiple times through several units in order to practice the skill of formulating a research question. Although students will carry out this routine collaboratively, ultimately they will design one question individually to explore for the IA. It’s even a great idea for students to do this routine in the same journal or document so they can look back on these questions when it’s actually time to design their own experiment for the Internal Assessment.
The whole point of the structure of most Internal Assessments within IB is to give students the platform to choose an area of study they like and apply their skills in this new context. However not all students have the skill of asking interesting or relevant questions when they enter our classrooms. So how can we help students find their interests and channel them into potential experiments? Even the students coming up with wonderful inquiries struggle with taking the next step: making it testable. This should not be pulling teeth; it should be where all the creativity happens. In the routine below, students undergo the QFT method. However they then return to the questions they prioritized to further align them with the IB internal assessment. The emphasis for this task is: “How can I measure it?” This simple exercise helps bridge the gap between a topic a student finds interesting and helping it meet the constraints of the IB Internal Assessment:
Example from my classroom:
The QFocus was a diagram of the carbon cycle relating to Topic 4.3 of the IB Biology SL curriculum, presented to students on the overhead projector. Students had just finished this topic. After students produced questions, they reviewed their questions and discussed the nature of the IB task. In this case they were creating practice questions, not to be immediately applied, but that could be used for the Internal Assessment later on in the course. I reminded the class that the purpose of the Internal Assessment is to carry out an experiment of their own, and that the scientific method is designed to only manipulate one variable at a time for a quality study. The class used these reminders to discuss the pros and cons of open-ended and close-ended research questions. They decided that a close-ended question would not give them the chance to collect data and analyze it, but if the question was too open-ended, it would be hard to narrow to just one independent variable to manipulate. They also discussed how open-ended questions may lead them to various ideas, which they can then narrow in scope later on into a research question.
One group was working with the question: “How does acid rain affect the environment?” At this point I prompted them to think about two things: 1) how this might become a testable research question (i.e. How can you measure it?) and 2) if this question promotes local or globally-minded thinking, as the IB curriculum emphasizes. I asked, “If you were to turn this into a testable research question, what else might you need to decide?” Students began thinking about what their independent and dependent variables might be. They even jotted down an outline of a methodology to see their ideas through. Comments such as “How can we make acid rain?” came out first. Then another student said, “Maybe we can make a similar solution and use this in the lab.” Another student moved on to the dependent variable: “How will we test if it affects the environment?” and someone responded, “The environment is too big of a variable, how would we measure the environment?” Eventually one student suggested that maybe they could choose just use one type of plant to see how it was affected by acid rain. This back-and-forth helped flush out the broad nature of the question and guide the students to a narrower scope.
I asked another question: “Does this question have a connection with a larger global problem, or a local problem here in Honduras?” This got students thinking about acid rain as an environmental problem, and prompted a couple students to start researching online about whether or not Honduras experiences this problem. In this way, they were already starting to answer the question in a broader sense, and were using this knowledge to design their research.
As you can see from this example, the guidance you can provide students can very much take the form of questioning. Prompting them to consider constraints and limitations helps move them into the type of question they’ll need for their Internal Assessment. Additionally, almost all of the mental work is on the student, and better yet, they are pursuing an area of knowledge that they chose when making the question, not something you provided to them from a list of ideas. The result of this will be higher engagement in the IA itself, and likely more questions that have relevant and interesting ties with local or global issues.
As students reflect on the routine, I commonly hear, “The hardest part is making your question testable” or, “So basically we can turn anything we want into an IA as long as we can measure it.” I also hear, “The IA seems a lot clearer now that I’ve done this,” and “I like how we start with a question we find interesting, and work from there.” I have seen students become very attached to a certain idea or question that comes out of this routine, and they keep tinkering with it before it’s time for their real IA and then ultimately have a very sound methodology made.
Example questions from the routine:
QFocus: An image of the carbon cycle
Interesting Question: How does acid rain affect the environment?
Testable Research Question: How does the amount of acid affect the growth of plants?
Further Decisions: What type of plant they’ll use, what acid they’ll use and why, how they might measure growth.
QFocus: A lab activity that explored various reflexes of the nervous system.
Interesting Question: Does your blindspot change during your life?
Testable Research Question: If we test people of different ages, will the size of the blindspot change?
Further Decisions: What ages might be chosen, by what method the blindspot will be measured.
QFocus: “Hormones” (after finishing a unit on this)
Interesting Question: Does having a light on affect insomniacs?
Testable Research Question: How much melatonin is produced in a person’s body depending on the amount of light in a room?
Further Decisions: How melatonin might be measured, how to measure light intensity in a room, how to control other variables that affect melatonin production.
Sidenote: In this example, the students are proposing to test the levels of the hormone melatonin in a person. This is not a realistic study to carry out for a high school student. It sheds light on the reality that many questions students come up with will not actually be feasible to carry out in a school lab environment. That’s okay! It is valuable for students to discuss the limitations of this and adapt their question into something they actually do have the ability to test. Perhaps if they can’t measure a person’s melatonin levels, they may look for an app that tracks movements while you sleep, and test how having a light on affects the quality of sleep.
Adapting this routine for other areas of the IB Curriculum
The above routine can easily be adapted to other IB Internal Assessments. While in science the students can identify next steps by asking themselves, “How can I measure it?,” there are different priorities based on the area of study. Perhaps in a mathematics course students ask themselves, “How can I model it?” Perhaps in history or literature students ask themselves, “What arguments can I develop within this question?” For the Extended Essay, another task in the IB curriculum, students might ask themselves, “How can it fit within my chosen subject?”
Recommendations for your professional learning community
Read Make Just One Change by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana.
Provide all members with this book. Save most of your meeting time for discussion. You can use the Word, Sentence, Phrase Protocol: ask each member to circle/highlight a word, sentence or phrase that they would like to discuss further. During meeting time, go through these highlighted pieces to expose reactions to the text, connections your colleagues make, aha moments, etc.
Explore individually in your own classrooms & report back
This technique will spark inspiration in every teacher differently, depending on the needs of their class. Encourage each member of your team to use it in their own way. Suggest a date in the future to meet back and share student samples and reflections of their process. Openly discuss the benefits and challenges that were faced. By doing this, the whole team is exposed to different variations on the strategy and can adopt what works for them.
Observe one another
Encourage peer observation. Ask colleagues if you can watch their QFT and vice versa. Debrief together after on how well the aims were met. Brainstorm together ways to further implement it to better meet the aims.
The suggestions and assertions made in this post are based solely off of my own experience working with the QFT, students and colleagues. Since I began working with the QFT two years ago, I have found it to only support my classroom and the IB curriculum. I look forward to learning more in years to come.
Ali Swanson, M.Ed., has taught science at the American School of Tegucigalpa in Honduras for seven years and has a passion for strategies that support IB and STEM learning environments. When not teaching, Ali exploring the outdoors with her husband Blake and new baby.