Educators Want Students To Ask The Questions

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Authors Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein. (Courtesy: Right Question Institute)
Authors Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein. (Courtesy: Right Question Institute)

The classic model of teaching is leading students by asking questions. It's often called The Socratic Method, after the ancient Greek philosopher, but it's a staple of the modern classrooms from elementary school up to college. The most famous Hollywood version of it may be from the film and TV show, The Paper Chase, set at Harvard Law School.

Educators Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana want to turn the standard model on its head. They've founded the "Right Question Institute," based on the idea that it's much more effective to teach students to formulate and ask their own questions. It's critical not just for the classroom, but for students' lives.

They also argue that the ability to ask questions is critical to a healthy democracy.

"It's possible to imagine a dictatorship without questions, but not a democracy," Dan Rothstein told Here and Now's Robin Young,

Book Excerpt: 'Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions'

By: Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana


Teacher: Ling-Se Peet, Urban and Sciences Academy (Boston Public Schools)

Subject: Humanities

Class size: Twenty-five students

QFocus: Torture can be justified

Purpose in using QFT: Class is reading In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, a novel set during Trujillo’s regime in the Dominican Republic and in which torture for political purposes plays a key role. Students will generate questions to deepen their understanding of the issues in the novel and their questions will be used in a Socratic seminar.

Ling-Se Peet was about to use the QFT for the first time with her class. In addition to the challenge of the new practice, she was also aware that these students had their minds on many other things as they neared the end of their high school career, including the prom. These students were success stories in their families, school, and neighborhoods. They had made it through twelve years of schooling—some of them had come as immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean just a few years earlier—and almost all of them were heading off to college, with the majority going to nearby community and commuter colleges.

Peet knew that they would need some time to think about and discuss the Rules for Producing Questions. “The rules are simple enough,” she thought, “but that doesn’t mean [my class] is really going to understand how they’ll have to behave differently than in our typical classroom discussions. And,this topic, the focus on torture, is not easy.” Indeed, some of her students came from countries where torture is not some abstract concept but an actual practice. For many, it hit too close to home. Would they be able to participate in this process, she wondered, without jumping in with declarations, stopping to discuss, argue, and debate? These were some of the specific issues she faced in introducing the QFT to this class.


Discussing the Rules

Peet’s first step was to split the class up into groups of four or five students. Then she passed
out a list of the four simple rules. She saw some students quickly put them aside with a shrug that implied, “What’s the big deal?” while others looked them over slowly and carefully. She gave them all another moment, then asked, “What might be difficult about following these rules?” and told them to discuss this briefly in their own groups.

This opening small group activity was a dry run of sorts to see how they would manage the
discussion on their own. Quickly, and not to her surprise, there were differences in engagement and participation. She heard a couple of students immediately raise concerns related to rule 1 (coming up with as many questions as they could), about not knowing what to ask, but most students focused on the difficult rule 2 not to change, discuss, or judge any questions. Several students went down another common path. One girl said. “I like to answer questions. If I hear a question I like or I’m interested in, I don’t wanna wait ’til later to talk about it.” A boy in a different group voiced a similar feeling: “I’d wanna get an answer before I move on.”

None of the small groups actually got to either rule 3 (write it down exactly as it was stated) or 4 (change every statement into a question). At this point, those rules existed only in the abstract; the students had not yet experienced turning statements into questions. They also had not had much experience changing their own questions or editing and modifying them.

The meaning of these rules would become manifest only once they went through the exercise and started to break the rules. At that point, Peet would remind them stick to the rules. This opening process took about five minutes, concluding with a request for volunteers to share with the entire class what they had talked about in their groups.

Introducing the QFocus

Now it was time for the students to begin producing their own questions. Peet gave each group a sheet of newsprint and a couple of markers. “OK,” she announced, “you’re about to begin asking your questions. I’m going to give you the QFocus, and the only thing allowed now is asking questions about it.” She put on an overhead sheet with big letters:

Torture can be justified

She gave the class a few seconds to absorb these words. When a few hands shot up to ask her, as was usual practice, to explain what she wanted, she just encouraged her students to get started, reminding them, “Follow the Rules for Producing Questions. Just questions now. No discussion!”

Producing the Questions

The groups did produce questions, which are presented here as they were formulated and transcribed by the students.

Group 1: This group comprised four female students—Jasmine, Kandice, Tiffani, and Carmen.
Tiffani was the scribe. They got going quickly. As soon as Tiffani wrote down the QFocus at
the top of the page, Jasmine started off: “How do you define torture?” This first question put
a big issue on the table. The definition of torture is one that jurists, legislators, and human
rights commissions have grappled with for years. And yet the experts and august bodies have been unable to agree on what can be defined as torture. It was a potent first question that could have provoked a lengthy debate right then, but, keenly aware of the Rules for Producing Questions, the group pressed on.

Carmen asked a second question: “When is torture used?” She was introducing another element here—a push to clarify not only meaning but also context. Then, the questioning went in a different direction when Kandice asked: “Can torture make you happy?”

This caught the other girls by surprise. They sat in silence for a few moments, and then Tiffani came up with: “What justifies torture?” Since she had written down the QFocus, she seemed to take ownership of the words themselves and turned them into a question. She looked satisfied with her question.

Then Jasmine, pushing some of her definitional interests further, wanted to know: “Who are mostly to be tortured?” Then, looking closely at her question as Tiffani wrote it down, she continued: “Do you think torture is an appropriate punishment?”

The group paused at that question, and it looked as if they wanted to begin a debate, but just at that moment, Peet, who was trying to get another group to follow the rules, said to the whole class, “Remember, you’re just asking questions here. No discussion.” They held off from responding to Jasmine’s question. Instead, Tiffani asked: “What do you think they should do to someone who tortures others?” and Jasmine went back to her themes, asking:

“In what situations should torture be used?” and quickly following with two more:
“Is torture inhumane?” and “Is torture only physical?”

That question prodded Kandice back in the direction of personalizing the implications of torture, but with a different focus: “What are the long-term effects of torture?”

Finally, Tiffani, in a strong voice, asked: “Who should be punished for torture?”

The questions had gone in different directions. If it was still not clear where they were going to go with these questions, it was quite evident that they had used the structure—the Rules for Producing Questions and the process—to accomplish the divergent thinking part of the QFT.

Group 2: This group of two male and two female students—Jerrold, Roland, Tajay, and Danielle—was silent at the outset and seemed to have trouble getting started. Peet noticed that and reminded the class as a whole: “Use the rules and just ask questions. No discussion.” As this group saw the other groups getting into the process, they got started. Tajay, the scribe, slowly and deliberate used large block letters to copy the QFocus to the top of the page.

Danielle got them started: “How do you justify torture?” The question seemed to silence them. Roland literally scratched his head and then slowly asked: “What circumstances would require torture?”

They sat again in silence for a bit. Jerrold said, “We can’t discuss that?” Tajay, marker in hand, now wondered if that was a question she was supposed to write down. They sat for a while, looking a little frustrated as Peet talked to another group, but then they heard her say, “Just look at the QFocus and keep asking any question that comes to mind.” They looked back at their page and the QFocus, and Jerrold, who had wanted to stop to discuss Roland’s question, instead asked his own: “Why is torture even effective?”

Danielle followed immediately with: “Is torture done to be a lesson?”

And then Roland got their attention when he asked: “How is torture and justice related?” Again, the group sat in silence for a few moments contemplating that question. Peet, alert to the fact that other groups had already finished and perhaps assuming that this group’s silence meant completion, announced that all groups would need to write down their last question before she moved on to the next step. This got Danielle to ask quickly: “Does the word can [in the QFocus) have some special meaning?” Tajay didn’t pay much attention to that question, but she wrote it down and then squeezed in one more question of her own:

“What effects does torture have on the people being tortured?”

Divergent Thinking by Way of Different Styles, Different Paces, and Different Ideas

It had taken group 2 the full eight minutes Peet had allocated for this step to come up with just seven questions—a contrast to some of the other groups in the room, including one that had produced triple that number. But this step is not a competition to come up with the most questions. It is a process to stimulate, prod, cajole, and engage students in divergent thinking. This group’s seven questions were the result of their own divergent thinking efforts. They had heard each other asking about justification for torture, its effectiveness, and its impact on people. They may not have produced a lot of questions, but they got to new places and new ways of thinking related to the QFocus.

The exercise was instructive for Peet as well. She saw that, when given the opportunity to think divergently, groups will go off in different directions and may also explore common themes. Some will do it by producing a lot of questions, others with relatively few. Either way, they are using the process to look closely at the QFocus and unpack the meaning of the terms and ideas presented to them.

When Peet told the class that time was up for this part of the process, the body language in the room had changed. Whereas at the outset students were draped over their chairs in a range of creative ways—some with backs to their peers, some with backs to Peet, and some with a keener focus on a friend or a more intriguing fellow student in a neighboring group, they were now all focused sharply on the paper full of the questions they had produced. They were, as they said later, quite proudly, “our questions.” The students had a sense of ownership over those questions and they now demonstrated, at least physically, that they were ready for Peet’s instructions about the next step in the process.

Peet noted that she had always thought of her classroom as a student-centered one. But after seeing the way her students responded to the opportunity to generate their own questions, she realized that there is something fundamentally different about students responding to a teacher’s question to encourage thinking—no matter how well constructed—versus students getting the chance to generate their own questions. Her students noticed the difference as well.

Copyright Harvard Education Press (September 20, 2011)


  • Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, co-authors of "Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions," co-founders of the "Right Question Institute"

This segment aired on August 23, 2012.


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