Questions Have Always Been the Answer

"One of the very important characteristics of a student is to question. Let the students ask questions." - A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

Have you ever gone down the "why" rabbit hole with a toddler?  You know, that stage of their life when they ask "why" for everything you tell them to do.  If you are a parent, an older sibling, or a preschool teacher, then you know exactly what I'm talking about.  Here's a scenario to show you what I mean:

Parent: "Okay, it is time to go to the park so let's put our shoes on."

Toddler: "Why?"

Parent: "Well, because we need to protect our feet from harmful things that might be on the ground."

Toddler: "Why?"

Parent:  "Because if you don't wear shoes then you might step on something that could hurt you."

Toddler: "Why?"

Parent:  "Because there could be pointy plants, or trash that someone dropped on the ground."

Toddler: "Why?"

Parent: "Well, maybe there wasn't a trash can around, I don't know."

Toddler: "Why?"

Parent:  "Because trash cans aren't everywhere!"

Toddler: "Why?"

Parent: "I don't know why, just put on your shoes so we can go!"

I might be in the minority here, but I absolutely love this stage of a child's life. They are fascinated with the world around them and they are so determined to understand it. The sad part is that all kids eventually grow out of this phase—and unfortunately—most of them will probably never go back to asking this many questions ever again.

Something happens about the time students enter first grade. They begin to learn in school that answers are more valuable than questions. No one explicitly tells them this, but they pick up on the nuances of social norms in the classroom that let them know that answers are what is important in school. If you think about it, students spend the majority of time in class answering questions—questions that they read in books, questions that their teachers ask, and questions that they find on assessments.  In the age of accountability in education, it can be difficult to provide students with opportunities to ask their own questions. But it doesn't have to be.

One of the most powerful lessons that I have learned as a teacher is to allow students to ask their own questions. Surprisingly, this simple instructional strategy seems novel to many of us. I know it did to me when I first participated in a webinar, hosted by the Discovery Education Network (DEN) back in 2012. The webinar featured, Dan Rothstein from the Right Question Institute where he shared information on the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).  Rothstein taught me—along with other participants in the webinar—how to use this Harvard Graduate School of Education technique in order to deliberately teach students how to ask and refine their own questions.

The overarching goal of the webinar was to quickly learn to teach a simple skill that promotes curiosity in the classroom. And all he asks of teachers is to "make just one change—teach students to ask their own questions" [1]. Based on nearly two decades of research, practice, and improvement, Rothstein shares that the skill of question formulation is the single best thing that teachers can do to provide equitable access and universal relevance to their students to make all learning possible.

What's more, Rothstein believes that questions also lead to new ideas, new inventions, and better solutions" [1]. He also makes the claim that learning how to ask meaningful questions leads to improved learning outcomes, greater student engagement, and more ownership over the learning process [1]. But it's not just about students asking questions—it's about getting them to ask the right questions. And in order to ask the right questions, Rothstein proposes that teachers use the criteria of the Question Formulation Technique to help students produce, improve, strategize, and reflect on their questions.

The QFT Criteria for Teachers

The first step in the Question Formulation Technique is for teachers to choose what Rothstein calls, "a Question Focus or QFocus" [1].  The Question Focus is typically a topic that is introduced at the beginning of a unit of study or a lesson plan.  The teacher's role in this stage is to present the topic to the students.  As we learned in The Perplexity Factor section of this book, it can be particularly effective when the teacher presents the topic in the form of a prompt—a statement, image, video, audio file, or artifact—to stimulate curiosity. 

After the Question Focus has been successfully introduced, the teacher provides specific rules to students for generating their questions.  The best part about these rules is that they can be implemented or adapted to fit any grade level, in any subject area.  In a Problem-Based Learning model, this process is known as developing—what the Buck Institute for Education refers to as—the "driving question" [2].  I like this terminology because it makes me think of planning a road trip.  If you don't have a destination in mind, then you will never get there.  So, by having a driving question, it acts as the destination to a learning journey. 

The QFT rules begin with students producing as many questions as they can.  Then they improve their questions by turning any closed-ended questions into open-ended questions, and refining their questions to add clarity and precision.  Next, they strategize on how to use their questions by selecting their top three, and then ranking their question by order of importance. Then, when they are finished trying to answer their questions, they reflect on what they learned and how they learned it (See Figure 1). 

During this process, Rothstein strongly advises teachers against providing examples of questions that students could potentially ask.  This is because when students see examples of questions, it often limits their creativity and authenticity.  We want students to produce original ideas and independent questions so that their learning experience is more genuine and fulfilling.  In order to see how this might fit into your classroom, let's take a look at an example.  

Figure 1: The Question Formulation Technique
adapted from Rothstein (2011)

Let's say that you are a social studies teacher and you are introducing a new unit on economics.  After providing your students with an intriguing prompt, you ask your students to produce as many questions as they can think of.  Depending on the grade level that you teach, this could be a sample response from a student.

Produce Their Own Questions

  • What is economics?
  • Does it have to do with the economy?
  • I heard economics is about supply and demand.
  • What is the difference between goods and services?
  • Is economics about money?
  • People have needs and wants in an economy.

After they produce their own questions, it is time for them to improve or refine their questions.  This is where you ask your students to change any statements into questions, turn any closed-ended questions into open-ended questions, and make their questions more specific. Here is an example of how this sample student might refine their original questions.

Improve Their Questions

  • What is the purpose of economics?
  • How does the economy impact our lives?
  • How does supply and demand affect our economy?
  • Why are goods and services important to our economy?
  • What role does money play in economics?
  • How do people balance their needs and wants in life?

Now that your students have improved their questions, they need to strategize over how they want to use their questions.  This can include categorizing their questions, or prioritizing their questions in a particular order.  I like to have my students choose their top three questions, and then rank them based on their own category such as importance, relevance, or curiosity.  This is how our sample student might rank their top three questions based on how important they are to them.

Strategize on How to Use Their Questions

  1. How does the economy impact our lives?
  2. How do people balance their needs and wants in life?
  3. How does supply and demand affect our economy?

From here, students can either use these three questions to find out more information on economics, or they can craft a single driving question.  This really depends on whether the teacher wants students to focus on one question, or if they want their students to try to answer multiple questions.  Either way, your students will be in a great position to begin conducting research from going through the QFT.

Reflect on Their Questions

At the end of a lesson or a unit, I have my students submit their responses on a Google Form that captures their reflection by answering a few questions.  When I create the Google Form I like to turn on a setting that provides my students with a copy of their responses so that they can refer back to their learning.  Here are a few questions that I include on the reflection form:

  • What is your biggest takeaway from this unit/lesson?
  • How effective was the process of creating your own driving question?
  • What impact did your driving question have on your learning and understanding?
  • How might you improve this process for next time?
  • What might you have changed about your driving question to yield better results?

There are countless questions that you can ask your students to help them reflect on their own learning. From my experience, I have found that these questions are particularly effective at getting students to think about the process of learning, as well as the knowledge that they gained from each unit of study.  My hope is that by reflecting on their learning, our students will continue to improve their question formulation skills so that they can find better answers, and create better solutions.

The Three Types of Thinking

As students use the rules of the Question Formulation Technique, they engage in three very different types of thinking—divergent thinking, convergent thinking, and metacognitive thinking [1].  Rothstein intentionally crafted the QFT to include these three types of thinking because they are each critical to the learning process.  In fact, research shows that when we move information back and forth between the left and right hemispheres of our brain, it helps to construct knowledge and understanding.  

When students begin producing their own questions, they use divergent thinking or abstract thinking in order to come up with as many questions as they can. Put simply, it's about the quantity of questions that are asked. “Divergent thinking" as Rothstein describes, "reflects an ability to generate a wide range of ideas, options, hypotheses, and possibilities” [1].  It allows students to be creative and inventive as they conjure up questions about the Question Focus. This helps students to explore the topic from many different angles and to think broadly about the subject matter.

In contrast, as students refine their questions, they use convergent thinking or critical thinking so that they can improve the quality of their questions.  Rothstein describes convergent thinking as "the synthesizing of a range of ideas, allowing students to take a collection of facts and examples and make sense of it all" [1]. In other words, it allows students to narrow the focus of their questions so that they can prioritize them and strategize over how they want to use them in their research.  This can include categorizing their questions into groups, or even combining their questions into a single driving question.

The culminating piece of the QFT occurs at the end of the process when students use metacognitive thinking, or reflective thinking to solidify their learning. "Metacognitive thinking" as Rothstein defines, is "the ability to think about one's own learning and thinking processes" [1].  By engaging in metacognitive thinking, students are able to reflect on their question and how it impacted their learning and understanding of the lesson topic.  I agree with John Dewey when he once said, "We don't learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience."  That is to say, we don't truly construct knowledge until we have had the opportunity to think deeply about the events that we encounter in life.

Figure 2: The QFT Teacher Criteria, adapted from Rothstein (2011)

Rothstein likes to provide teachers with a few pointers the first time they facilitate this process.  He reminds teachers that they will not be asking the questions, their students will.  It may be tempting to provide examples, or to ask questions to help support students in this process.  He urges teachers to refrain from giving in to these temptations, because they can significantly reduce the amount of learning that happens.  He also recommends planning for at least 45 minutes the first time you try this with your students.  This will be new for both you and your students so it might take awhile to initially go through the process.  But after you undergo the QFT a few times, teachers can knock the time down to about ten to fifteen minutes. 

You can also group your students into small groups when you do this activity.  This can be particularly effective when students are working on a project and they need to collaborate in order to craft a shared driving question.  In this situation, students get a chance to use other higher order thinking skills such as evaluation and justification as they are debating on which questions to use.  

To take this idea a step further, you could even complete the QFT as a whole class activity where students have to work together to create a single driving question that everyone explores.  Instead of providing students with essential questions in a unit of study, you can empower them to come up with a custom set of essential questions by going through this process as an entire class. 

QFT Rules for Students

If we break down the Question Formulation Technique a bit more, there are some guidelines that Rothstein provides teachers when students are producing their own questions in the first stage.  While I am not as strict on enforcing these rules with my students, Rothstein believes that they are imperative to the success of the technique.  

In order to yield the best results, Rothstein insists that teachers hold students accountable for the following tasks as they produce their own questions: Ask as many questions as you can.  Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions. Write down every question exactly as it was stated. And change any statements into questions [1].  Rothstein's research suggests that if students perform these steps, in this exact order, then they will increase their chances in developing high quality questions (See Figure 3).

Figure 3: QFT Rules for Students, adapted from Rothstein (2011)

When I use the QFT with my students, I have found that these rules tend to complicate things a bit.  To keep things as simple as possible for my students, I only ask that they record as many questions as they can think of, first.  Then, I have them make sure that their questions are all open-ended. Next, I have them refine their questions for clarity and purpose.  After that, I have them prioritize and rank their top three questions.  And then finally, I have them decide on their driving question. 

Questions Have Always Been The Answer

The first time you lead your students through the QFT, I highly recommend using Rothstein's model exactly as it is written.  This will allow you to figure out what you like, and what you might want to change to meet the unique needs of your own students.  Again, this might also depend on the grade level that you teach, as you might want to increase or decrease the difficulty for your students.  Regardless of the process you ultimately decide to use, the end goal is empowering students to ask their own questions. Plain and simple.

We know that questions enhance engagement and help us to bridge the gap between what we already know, to what we don't know.  In other words, they help us to access our background knowledge in order to make connections to new information.  The best thing about inquiry is the more questions you have, the more you learn. And the more you learn, the more questions you have. This cyclical pattern is the reason why questions have always been the answer to learning.  And why they have always been the answer solving problems.

Let's get our students asking questions again.  And let's allow them to relive their "why" stage to continue to explore and investigate the world around them.  If we are able to make this one change, then I am confident that our students will become better learners.  They will become knowledge-able.

What questions do you have about what you have read in this section?  Be sure to write them all down, refine them, prioritize them, and reflect on them.  That way, you can practice using the Question Formulation Technique before you introduce it to your students.


  1. Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Make just one change: Teach students to ask their own questions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
  2. PBLWorks. "What is PBL?" The Buck Institute for Education,