Exercises to Build Your Questioning Muscles

1BallThe Question Formulation Technique (QFT)

Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana of the Right Question Institute have a developed a wonderfully simple, fun, and highly effective exercise designed to encourage students to generate lots of questions. The process is explained in detail in Rothstein and Santana’s book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions—a must-read for teachers or anyone interested in improving education. And you can also find lots of information about the QFT on the Right Question Institute website.

In a nutshell, here’s how it works:

Teachers design a “Question Focus.” This involves coming up with a premise or opening statement that can provide a focal point for generating questions from the students. (e.g., “Technological change” or “Curiosity in the classroom” or “Pollution is a problem”). Don’t use a question as a starting point—it’s easier to form questions around a statement or a phrase.

Students produce questions. Within a time limit, students (usually broken up into small groups), are supposed to generate and write down questions pertaining to that Q-Focus. Only questions are welcome—no opinions or answers, no debating which questions are best; the idea is to just keep inquiring about the subject from different angles.


Questioning in actoin

Questioning in action

Students improve their questions. At a certain point, students begin to work on the questions they’ve written down; they open the closed questions, and close the open ones. For example, an open question that began as Why is torture effective? might be changed to a closed one: Is torture effective? In doing this, students learn that a question can be narrowed down in some cases, expanded in others—and they begin to see that “the way you ask a question yields different results and can lead you in different directions,” Rothstein explains.

Students prioritize their questions. They are typically instructed to come to agreement on three favorites.

Students and teachers decide on next steps, in terms of acting on the prioritized questions.

Students reflect on what they have learned.

The process is designed to be simple enough that teachers can learn it in an hour, and students can grasp it immediately. “Making it simple was the hard part,” Rothstein told me—that basic formula took about a decade to produce. For the students taking part in the exercise, it can be challenging, Rothstein acknowledges, because “it requires them to do something they’ve never done—to think in questions.”

2ball2“10 Questions in 10 minutes”

Julie Grimm, a second grade teacher based in Hagerstown, MD, told me she does a question exercise called 10 in 10—in which students are expected to come up with 10 questions about a topic in 10 minutes.

“Then they have to decide which of those questions are the best ones to research. They’ll use those questions to come up with a book they produce.”

2BallWhy / What If / How

In my research on questioning, I found that innovators and inventors often solve problems by asking Why, What If, and How questions—in that order. (To learn more about why the “Why / What If / How” sequence of questioning is so effective at problem-solving, read These three questions can help you tackle any problem.) To try a Why / What If / How exercise, come up with a problem for kids to tackle (e.g., “Students aren’t using the school library enough”) and challenge the students to start using Why questions to explore reasons behind the problem; then use What If questions to try to come up with imaginative ideas for solutions; then use practical How questions to try to make those “What If” ideas more realistic and actionable.

4Ball“How Might We” mission questions

If you don’t know about the power of asking questions that begin with “How Might We,” read The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use. As my article notes, this form of questioning is used by powerhouse companies such as Google and Facebook to come up with big ideas. But there’s no reason students can’t come up with their own “How Might We” questions, too! Ask the group to think about some of the issues or challenges they’re most interested in. Together, try to come up with 5 to 10 big “How Might We” questions to address some of those challenges (e.g., “How might we help kids in our community who are hungry?”). Once you have a list, see if the group can agree on one “How Might We” question to adopt and work on together in days ahead—that can become the group’s “mission question.”

5BallThe 5 Whys

The “5 Whys” originated in Japan and is credited to Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. For decades, the company used the practice of asking “why” five times in succession as a means of getting to the root of a particular problem. For example, when a faulty car part came out of a factory, asking why the first time would yield the most obvious answer (e.g., an assembly line worker made a mistake). But by then asking why the mistake occurred, an underlying cause might surface—such as, insufficient training on that task. Asking why again, the company might discover the training program was underfunded, which would lead to questioning why it was underfunded.

The 5 whys is not just applicable to making cars—it can be used to analyze almost any problem. The design firm IDEO, which is a big practitioner of the 5 Whys methodology, offers this as an example of how asking 5 whys can help you dig down to a deeper truth.

The-Five-Whys (1)

For a classroom questioning exercise, put some problems in front of the group, and together, try subjecting them to the 5 Whys, to see where it leads. You can also pair off students and have them try the 5 Whys on each other. It’s fun and interesting (sometimes it leads to new insights, other times to dead ends!). But it also provides a great lesson on the value of using follow-up questions to dig deeper into a challenge.

6BallWonderWalls and “Question of the day” bulletin boards

If you’re not doing this already, Question Week is a great time to start creating a space in the classroom to recognize and celebrate great questions asked by students. (Here are some ideas and photos on WonderWalls). I also want to pass along this idea from Megan Strople Daley:

“I’ve heard of teachers using a ‘scholar wall.’ During a lesson if a student asks a question that can’t be answered they write it on a sticky note and put it on the wall. At the end of the day, students can copy the questions and research them at home or during free time. The next days, students present their findings.”

7ballFun with Interviews

I really love this idea shared by teacher Chris Gall.

“I tell my classroom students to ask questions of me for a given length of time (typically 10–15 minutes). Those questions cannot be related to the class, or classroom policies and procedures (we’ll get to those when we talk about the syllabus). I will answer their questions completely honestly, and on the off-chance that they get too personal, I will simply tell them that, rather than making up an answer. But, they are free to pose any question they choose. Their goal is to write a brief biography of me, based on the notes that they take during the Q & A. If kids seem hesitant, or don’t know what types of questions are okay, I give examples (favorite food, siblings, where I grew up, children, etc.) to help them get started. I then collect the writing samples and now have a feel for how my kids write—and they know that it’s okay to ask questions, and that they’ll get honest answers from me (or acknowledgement of ignorance, as the case may be).”

While Gall uses this exercise at the beginning of the term, I think Question Week is also a perfect time to do it—with yourself as the interview subject, or you can bring in special guests to be interviewed!

Don’t forget to share with others what you’re doing on the Facebook page or at Twitter under the #QuestionWeek hashtag.

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