In my many years in the classroom, I have yet to find an instructional strategy as effective as the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) in increasing student engagement, motivation, and inquiry. While students generate, prioritize, and seek answers to their questions, they also exhibit the hallmarks of cooperative learning and student agency. As an instructional leader, I have shared the QFT with teachers, administrators, and community members because it has been a catalyst for shifting the focus of the learning environment from the teacher to the students. This is how I have always interpreted the title of Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana’s book Make Just One Change; if you change only one thing, like who is asking the questions in the classroom, it can unlock a world of possibilities in the lives of the learners — both the students and the teacher. Here are five reasons that explain how the QFT can support your professional learning and the skills of your students.
1. The QFT is simple to learn and teach to others.
As a teacher, instructional coach, or district professional learning provider, we know there are new initiatives and expectations to digest and incorporate into classroom instruction. Many are time-intensive and long-gestating processes that take time to see the benefits in the classroom. The great thing about the QFT is it can be learned in an hour or two on just one day, and a teacher could turn around and try it out and see results in their classroom the next day. In my district, we’ve incorporated training in the QFT into our new teacher induction program and our questioning strategies cohort.
For someone experiencing the QFT for the first time, I recommend experiencing it as a learner first, and then after unpacking its six steps and four rules, a teacher can begin designing their first lesson. Just like teachers, the QFT can be picked up quickly by students. With minimal frontloading, they will learn the rules and steps of the protocol and experience success generating questions during their first experience. As you will see, the QFT “plays well with others” and can be incorporated into a wide range of curriculum and instructional practices.
2. The QFT is flexible.
One of the most remarkable things about the QFT is how many different settings it can be used in. The first step of the QFT focuses on generating as many questions as possible, so this kind of divergent thinking can be achieved by all students from early childhood through college and adult education. Since the teacher is the designer of the Question Focus (QFocus) — the statement, image, or artifact the students are formulating questions about — the content and rigor of the QFocus can be adjusted to better address the subject students are learning. Advanced users of the QFT can even design more than one QFocus for the same activity to meet the readiness levels of different groups of students in the classroom. I have worked with teachers who have designed QFocus prompts where students developed essential questions at the start of a new unit, generated questions from varying perspectives ahead of a Socratic seminar, and brainstormed research sub-questions based on historic images. These teachers have continued to use the QFT each year with these units and have developed new QFocuses for additional units in their curriculum.
The QFT also shows its flexibility in the second phase of the protocol when more convergent thinking is needed as the learners categorize, revise, and prioritize their questions. Depending on the age and readiness of the students, the teacher may support the facilitation of some of these steps and determine whether this should be done as a class, in small groups, or independently. The same is true when the students and teacher transition into the next steps of what to do with the questions that have been generated and begin to explore how they might go about tackling their inquiry. These steps are where the teacher’s flexibility is needed most because the questions generated by the students may require adjustments to class readings or the next day’s lesson. While the unknowns may sound intimidating, they are the real time instructional responses we are all striving for to better meet the needs of our students. They also help teachers get excited and invested in the learning. I’ve experienced this in my teaching when using the QFT in conjunction with pieces of journalism, podcasts, and Shakespeare.
Read a full lesson from Matt’s classroom.
3. The QFT integrates reflection.
In the final step of the QFT, students are asked to reflect on what they have learned from the process of generating their own questions and strategize about the next steps for using them during the phase of the lesson or unit. It can be tempting to skip this step, but this moment of metacognition is crucial for getting student thinking and for learning to stick. When students reflect on what they have learned and how the generation of questions and their pursuit of answers contributed to their learning, it increases the likelihood students will begin to initiate the use of these processes in their daily life. It helps students connect what they are learning with how they are learning.
This reflection can take on many forms including thinking partners and small or large group discussion, but my preference is for students to write about it in a journal or blog post because this memorializes their learning experience. Students can come back to their reflections and after several experiences learning in this fashion, the QFT’s value will become more apparent to as they name the value and importance of question formulation for learning and life.
4. The QFT fosters collaboration.
When conducted in small groups (I recommend groups of three or four), the QFT and its four straightforward rules and six simple steps provide students with the opportunity to practice the core principles of cooperative learning of both Roger Johnson, David Johnson and Spencer Kagan. There is positive interdependence among the group during the question generation step, and students are individually accountable for the questions they ask. Group processing and simultaneous interaction is needed among the students as they negotiate whether a question is closed or open, whether it should be revised, and whether it is one of the three questions that should be selected based on the prioritization instructions. Of course, all of this interaction is done best in pods of students sitting face-to-face. One way to promote these cooperative learning tenets is to complete the QFT using butcher paper and markers, but it can be done effectively using loose leaf paper, a Chromebook, or an iPad.
The QFT also fosters collaboration between teachers. Every one of the successful QFT experiences I have had in the classroom came from conversations with colleagues about the rationale for using the QFT in a particular unit, the design of the QFocus, or the refinement of the prioritization instructions. One of the best ways to test and solidify the design of your QFT is to ask a colleague, course team, or professional learning community to assume the role of your students and experiment with generating questions you believe they might ask. This will help detect potential flaws in your QFocus, determine how you might sharpen the purpose of their questions with the prioritization instructions, and determine when will be the best time to deploy the QFT. The added bonus is after supporting you with your lesson planning, colleagues may want to incorporate this QFT lesson too, or they may return to you when they are ready to try their own and ask for assistance with troubleshooting.
Finally, the QFT is a powerful tool for learning with adults, too. To tackle challenging conversations on grading policies, schedule changes, and competency learning, I have used the QFT to get teachers’ questions out in the open and to engage them in conversations to work towards answers, solutions, and consensus.
5. The QFT works.
It really does! Time and time again. I see evidence of the efficacy of the QFT in my classroom with my students, in the classrooms I observe in my school and district, in the feedback I receive from those I train and coach, and in the diverse classrooms I follow using Twitter. The story of the QFT began in a handful of classrooms with the pioneers who worked with Dan and Luz, but the future of the QFT lies with you. Whether you are a classroom teacher looking for a new resource to include in your classroom, or an instructional coach or leader looking for a new resource to share with teachers in your school or district, the QFT is a great professional development opportunity. All you need to get started can be found for free on the RQI Educator Network at rightquestion.org.
Matt Parrilli is the Department Chair of English at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Illinois, and is currently working on his doctorate in educational leadership at Concordia University Chicago. Matt has taught high school English for 22 years and has been a department chair for 10. Since incorporating the QFT into his classroom four years ago, he has seen how it positively impacts student engagement, motivation, and inquiry. It has also changed his teaching which has become more student-led, collaborative, and authentic. Matt has led staff development on the QFT at the department, school, and district levels in the Chicago area.