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Professional Development Opinion

Who Cares About Questioning Strategies?

April 11, 2017 2 min read
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By Maryann Woods-Murphy

When I was in high school, I asked too many questions. Some teachers brightened when my hand shot up, but others sighed when they heard me ask, “Who decides what justice is?” or “How do we know that we really know anything?”

With questions solidly in my wheelhouse, it makes sense that when I became a teacher, I would see the immense value of inquiry-driven instruction. Questions build intrinsic motivation. They cause us to lean in and look for answers. Now, in my dual role as Gifted and Talented Teacher and Instructional Coach, I find myself continually seeking strategies to help my colleagues teach students to ask their own questions.

A colleague of mine who is also passionate about inquiry driven instruction recently reminded me that though educators talk about “rigor” and create “essential questions” for their classrooms, there is little guidance for educators about how to do this well. I had an

aha moment when I recently discovered The Right Question Institute (RQI), an organization entirely devoted to questioning as a path to democracy. The site supplies abundant and free educator resources, many based on their Question Formulation Technique (QFT) crafted 20 years ago out of a desire to help people ask their own questions and find excellent community-based solutions. The method offers resources for educators yearning for simple, yet powerful ways to engage students in the art of questioning.

I took to QFT with the zeal of convert. The QFT offers teachers a step-by-step approach to teach students to generate meaningful questions that connect to their own interests. Every QFT session starts off reviewing the rules for Question Formulation from Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Rothstein and Santana (2011):


  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

When students understand and have discussed these rules, present them with a QFocus, which is a visual, verbal or aural prompt. For my first QFT session, I used a QFocus of a Margaret Meade quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Soon students began scribbling questions like, “What does it mean to be committed?” and “Why does anyone want to change the world?” even “What makes people doubt that they can change the world?”

I get goose bumps seeing what children think and do when we provide them with a space for inquiry. Their questions often provide a springboard to real rigor and deeper learning. Anchor charts and posters filled with engaging student questions cover our walls and stimulated more discussions and even deeper questions.

The French writer Voltaire (1694-1778) reminded us, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” When students learn how to ask their own questions, educators have the chance to trace their thought patterns and present them with paths to original and authentic research projects. Content-loving teachers can then help their students curate resources that will help them find meaningful answers. When students learn to ask their own questions, they soon understand that what they care about most, matters in school.

Maryann Woods-Murphy is the 2010 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. She currently serves as the Nutley Public School District, Gifted and Talented Specialist in Nutley, New Jersey.

Photo from Creative Commons through Pixabay: child-1127087__340--pikabay.

The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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