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Curriculum Opinion

‘Partnering With Parents’ by Asking Questions

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 25, 2016 11 min read
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Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain agreed to answer a few questions about their new book, Partnering With Parents To Ask The Right Questions: A Powerful Strategy For Strengthening School-Family Partnerships (ASCD, 2016).

Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein are co-directors of The Right Question Institute and Agnes Bain is the institute’s treasurer and a professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston.

LF: I have had “surface” familiarity with the Right Question Strategy for quite awhile, and had thought of it only as a K-12 instructional strategy. I was surprised (though should not have been) to learn from your book that it’s applied in a number of areas, including working with parents.

Can you provide a “universal” explanation of the Right Question Strategy, including some background? My next question, and subsequent ones, will relate to its relationship to parents.

Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain:

We began our work in the old mill town of Lawrence, MA. Luz came to Lawrence from Puerto Rico, navigated her way through various systems (welfare, job training, factory floor jobs) before continuing her education and eventually working for the city on a drop out prevention program. Agnes, a lifelong resident of Lawrence was deeply rooted in local politics and civic affairs and began working as a volunteer on the drop out prevention program. Dan was working for the city as well and had helped initiate an effort to engage parents in the community in the drop out prevention program.

As the three of us began working together we would hear from parents that they were not participating in their children’s education, not even going to the schools because, as they told us, “we don’t even know what to ask.” We thought we could solve that problem by giving them a list of questions but soon noticed that as they faced different challenges and issues, they kept coming back for a new list of questions. We realized that we were actually creating greater dependency, the very opposite of what we wanted to do.

Eventually, we began working with the parents to figure out how to teach what is actually the very sophisticated thinking skill of question formulation to all people no matter their level of education or income. We made lots of mistakes but eventually created the Question Formulation Technique, a simple, but rigorous process that produces consistent results and improved ability to ask questions. We soon observed that when parents learned to ask their own questions they quickly began to take a more active role in their children’s education, communicate more frequently with school staff and began to help their children in new ways. Then, they taught us another lesson; the parents who were most effective acting on behalf of their children focused their questions on key decisions, including class placements, discipline policies, learning opportunities, special education referrals and more. Specifically, they began to ask questions about the reasons for a decision, the process for making it and the role they could play. They led us to what we call the Framework for Accountable Decision-Making, key criteria for good decision-making on any level of a democratic society.

They made clear the importance of moving from giving people a list of questions to deliberately building their capacity to continuously ask their own questions. We were listening to the parents and honoring not only what they knew, but also what they themselves named as a major obstacle to effective participation. Their call for the need for specific skill-building opportunities had never been fully understood or respected. Their wise insight was proven right, for when they developed their skills to ask questions and participate in decisions they moved from being dependent on others to greater self-efficacy and agency. Informed by their actions, we developed the full Right Question Strategy that deliberately teaches those two skills in as simple a way as possible.

When we shared the Right Question Strategy in many settings and across many fields and issues over the past twenty years, we observed a similar pattern of increased agency; among immigrant parents in New Mexico, sugar cane plantation workers in Hawaii, public housing residents in Chicago, adult literacy learners in New Hampshire, patients at community health centers in the Bronx and many more. We also saw that when people began to advocate for themselves in their individual encounters with public institutions, they modeled a form of democratic action on a micro level or what we have come to call “Microdemocracy.” Then, in the last five years we have been so impressed by the initiative and innovative spirit of classroom teachers who by the tens of thousands have now incorporated our Question Formulation Technique into their classrooms around the country and beyond. They are teaching the skill of question formulation to their students not because they are mandated to do so, but because they find that students who learn to produce their own questions, improve their questions and can strategize on how to use them are far more engaged and take more ownership of their learning than ever before. And, their excitement and depth of learning brings great joy to their teachers, a sentiment they well deserve.

LF: Okay, now that we have a little more general background on the Right Question Strategy, can you provide a short-and-simple overview of the focus of this book, The Right Question School-Family Partnership Strategy?

Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain:

We continually hear from school staff that they are often overwhelmed by daily demands, intermittent crises and on-going challenges, complicated by shifting demands on them that come from above. In this context, it is very hard to find the time, the resources and the capacity to work on building partnerships with parents. Our strategy is designed to help schools seize already existing opportunities to build parent capacity to ask their own questions and participate more effectively in key decisions that affect their children’s education.

What exactly changes when parents start to ask their own questions and participate in decisions? Parents who confidently use these skills, begin to play three key roles in their children’s education. They support their children by creating good conditions and communicating messages that make education a priority. They monitor their progress, staying alert to challenges and problems as they appear. They advocate for their children when necessary. The result of their actions supporting, monitoring and advocating for their children is a stronger partnership with school staff.

By taking action in these three ways, parents move from being reticent to participate or dependent on others to speak on their behalf and become more skilled agents on behalf of their children. This movement from dependency to agency is the most significant outcome of the Right Question Strategy.

The Right Question Strategy is also a resource for leveling the playing field, for ensuring that not just a few parent leaders are active at the school, but, rather that all parents can become more confident and skilled partners. We are committed to democratizing access to what too often are seen only as “leadership skills.”

LF: Can you take me step-by-step through a specific example using the Partnership Strategy? In other words, can you share an actual or theoretical complaint that might be voiced by a parent and lead me through how it might evolve from a complaint to an action with a successful result.

Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain:

Let’s look at it first from the perspective of a teacher in our book. A child is not consistently turning in homework. In the past, the teacher might send a note home stating the problem. Parents might get defensive or get angry with their children and remain unsure about how to respond. By using the Right Question Strategy, the teacher can change that dynamic. The teacher begins by creating what we call a Question Focus that presents a problem or challenge to the parents and can be as simple as: “X seems to be struggling to always do his homework.” The teacher invites the parent to voice a range of questions that can help them both think more clearly about the problem. The questions help shape a learning agenda, an action agenda and a plan for teacher and parent to work together.

Now, let’s look at it from a parent’s perspective as we often do in our book. Once parents learn to use the strategy they can continually prepare themselves to play a more effective role. If, for example, a parent is concerned their child is being bullied, instead of a quick emotional response saying “my child is afraid to go to school and what are you going to do about it?”, the parent can generate a range of questions about the extent of the problem, including who is affected by it, who is aware of it, what is being done, what is working, what can be done to help all involved and also protect the parent’s child. When this happens, the parent is better prepared to partner with the school in exploring the source of the problem and what can be done by all.

LF: In your book, you suggest that it might not actually take that much time and energy for teachers and administrators to implement this kind of parent partnership strategy. Of course, many - if not most - advocates for any kind of school based effort say the same thing. No offense intended, but why should educators believe you?

Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain:

The Right Question School-Family Partnership Strategy is just what it says it is: a strategy. It is a specific way to use some simple and consistent skill-building practices that are relevant across all areas and issues. It is not a program that requires new staffing, additional infrastructure, and longer hours. Educators can use the strategy in already existing opportunities; parent-teacher meetings, problem-solving meetings, school wide events, open houses, local school councils, and district-wide meetings to name a few. It does require a small, but significant shift in practice that moves from giving information to parents to investing in their ability to ask more questions about their children’s education and participate in key decisions.

The core of our work, day in and day, out is to figure out how to simplify the teaching of complex and sophisticated thinking skills and democratic skills so that they are easy to learn and easy to teach to others. Teachers tell us how once the strategy is implemented, their task of working with parents actually gets easier. They have talked about how parents who have learned to use the Right Question Strategy come to parent-teacher conferences, for example, prepared with their own questions. The conversations are productive and time-efficient and better partnerships emerge.

LF: You share a number of stories in the book of your strategy in action. What is your favorite one, and why do you like it so much?

Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain:

The book offers a series of case studies of how a parent liaison, a teacher, an assistant principal, a guidance counselor, district leaders and others can implement the strategy in different ways on many levels. Come on, Larry, you can’t expect us to choose a favorite one!

The concluding case study, however, pulls together a lot from all the other stories and adds new elements to the story. It focuses on an example from a border community in New Mexico where, after a shooting at a middle school, a social service agency that works with many immigrant parents helped bring parents into a process in which they became invaluable partners and effective advocates for helping their children’s schools secure resources to support violence prevention programs.

We really like this story for three reasons: First, it’s a great example of how service agencies and community organizations as well as parents who traditionally have not been active can help raise issues and secure resources that would be hard for school staff to do on their own. Second, it shows how the parents kept lifting the veil off of different levels of public decision-making. They identified foci for democratic action, beginning with the school, then moving to the district level, the school committee, the city council, the state department of education and even the state legislature. They quickly discovered how what happens on the micro level - at their children’s school - is affected by decisions made further up the democratic decision-making chain. Third, the catalyst for all this was one staff person at an agency working with parents of children with special needs. He had picked up our strategy in a statewide training and then when the crisis hit, he used the strategy with a group of four parents who were so excited about what they were able to figure out ‘just by working with questions’ that they went out and recruited 100 more parents and led them through the Right Question Strategy.

We have come a long way from when we began our work doing workshops directly in the community. This case study illustrates, precisely what we want to see: people learning the strategy, teaching others who can then teach even more people and no one is dependent on us or even knows who we are. That’s success.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein and Agnes Bain:

There is an urgent need to democratize access to the transformational skills of question formulation and more effective participation in decision-making. Not only will our schools and communities benefit from more people using these democratic skills, but our country as well.

LF: Thanks, Luz, Dan, and Agnes!


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