Forget the answer, what’s the question?

We all know the value of effective questioning, but should it be the students rather than the teacher doing a bit more of the asking? After reading about Question Formulation Technique (getting students to think of their own questions rather than just answering mine) a few weeks ago I was really keen to give it a whirl.

Tait Cole

However, Dylan Wiliam’s SSAT 2010 keynote is still ringing in my ears: we (teachers) should not waste time on self indulgent gimmicks if it causes us to move away from AfL and other proven high impact teaching & learning strategies. I’m not aware of any research on QTF and Prof Hattie hasn’t commented directly but does give an effect size of 0.74 to seemingly similar reciprocal teaching so probably worth a punt.

So, with caution as my watch word, I started thinking about how QFT could complement the way I teach and the way I want my students to learn. As I type, I realise that some may take issue with that last statement so let me expand. Whilst I’m not interested in Learning Styles and feel convinced that their educational value has been sufficiently debunked to safely ignore (Admittedly, there is much ongoing debate which you can read about here and here.), I am, however, keenly interested in the attitude to learning exhibited by my students and am aware that the preference of many is spoon feeding. This is not a habit I want to encourage.

What I want is students who have the confidence to learn independently, take risks and who see failure as an opportunity for further growth and development. Getting students to ask questions would seem to slot in well.

Back to QTF. I decided to plan a lesson on characterisation in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men which focussed on developing students’ ability to come up with ‘good’ questions. I taught the novel many many times before and am constantly in danger of falling into lecture mode and deluding myself into thinking that my charges will learn best if only they sit and listen to my shining pearls of wisdom. They don’t. So, instead of simply reading aloud in class and then doing some comprehension exercise and indulging in a spot of leacher lead discussion (don’t laugh: I really have done this and not that long ago either!) I been looking at ways of ‘flipping’ the classroom so that they do all the reading and quite a lot of thinking at home and on our class blog, freeing up lesson time for active, collaborative activities with lots of AfL opportunities to check everyone is on course.

I planned to get the class to undertake one of their speaking & listening assessments role playing the development of characters’ relationships in chapter 3 – that’s the dog-shooting, hand-crushing bit. The first part of the plan was to arrange the class into ‘home’ groups and share details about the end product.

From there, they moved into ‘expert’ groups: one for each of the 5 main characters and came up with as many questions as possible about their character on some big paper (I love big paper! This is probably self indulgent but, I think, harmless) without criticism, quality control or discussion.

They then had to sort their questions into categories and think about the characteristics of ‘good’ questions. I gave them a bit of direction here and suggested they think about open/closed and factual/conceptual questions. I had thought that they might find this tricky but was pleased to find myself proved wrong yet again.

The transition between steps 2 and 3 seemed to occur almost seamlessly as categorising lead them naturally into making decisions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ questions. Each group arrived at their three ‘best’ questions quickly and were eager to share with other groups.

I’m not sure I handled step 4 properly: I was unable to resist some whole class discussion of what made the best questions. Obviously, this meant that everyone had an idea about what everyone else had been up to but it did slow the lesson down and probably wasted some valuable learning time. I’ll post some photos of some of the questions on Monday.

Finally, we reshuffled back into home groups and got on with planning for the speaking and listening assessment. When we came to review the learning and consider the advantages of asking rather than answering question, I was delighted to hear comments like:

“It makes you think deeper…”

“I had to consider more things than usual.”

“We didn’t waste time writing answers.”

Was it worth it? We’ll have to wait until next week and consider the quality of their role plays. Anecdotally, I’m sure that this was a far better way for them to engage with Steinbeck’s characters than simply reading about them and then having a discussion. Was the impact worth the effort? Well, that’s Dylan Wiliam’s magic question. My answer is that it really didn’t take much planning; the students did all the work and I got to wander round encouraging; occasionally redirecting; having quality learning conversations about my observations and generally slapping myself on the back that everyone was so engaged.

Here’s my lesson in PPT form:

Here are some pics of the questions they created:

Thanks Punk Learning for pointing me in an interesting direction.




21 Responses to Forget the answer, what’s the question?

  1. learningspy says:

    Thanks to Dr Mark Evans (@teachitso) for unearthing this supporting evidence:

  2. Great explanation of how you used it and your slides helped me think about the QFT in a fresh way. thank you

  3. Justin says:

    I’d like to give you an idea if I may to expand your take on the QFT.

    The Questions that the students come up with, why not integrate Blooms Taxonomy of Higher Order thinking, and get students to use, “Analyse”, “Synthesis”, “Evaluate” questions to show their understanding.

    What do I mean by this? Well instead of just asking “After World War II, the Allies want to achieve justice for the crimes committed by the Nazis.?” Evaluate, Justify, Judge or Predict why this may be true.

    Just a thought..

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks Justin, I see what you mean and maybe Bloom’s might be an interesting way to get students to think about their questions in step 2.

      I wrote a post in August where I looked at the problems with Bloom and came to the conclusion that the SOLO taxonomy was a much more useful and interesting way to classify thinking.

      Cheers, David

  4. […] All my classes are chock full of fantastic, loveable young people! How good is that? I’ve been busily ‘mindsetting’ them and have been really impressed at the results so far. Some of thinking that’s gone into this includes convincing them to want to do stuff they find hard, taking a ‘granny cloud’ approach to encouragement as exemplified by DIY learning and question formulation technique. […]

  5. […] if you’re fed up with being the one doing all the asking, try this. Post a Comment    (0) Comments   Read More Create a free […]

  6. […] Forget the answer, what’s the question? […]

  7. […] the previous lesson we looked at characterisation. I put the class into home/expert groups an used Question Formulation Technique to get them to generate questions about the various characters in the novel. After going through […]

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  9. […] ideas so that they can be used independently. One of my favourite methods for doing this is to use Question Formulation Technique. John Sayer’s Deeper Questioning Grid is a useful tool to help students refine their […]

  10. Fran says:

    Thank you, thank you. We need more talk about teacher talk aka classroom discourse/dialogue

  11. […] ideas so that they can be used independently. One of my favourite methods for doing this is to use Question Formulation Technique. John Sayer’s Deeper Questioning Grid is a useful tool to help students refine their […]

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  14. […] Another technique could be the Question Formulation Technique. This involves introducing the lesson focus and getting the students to write down a list of questions, which they then classify as closed or open questions by putting an O or C next to them. They are then tasked with changing a closed one into an open one, and vice versa, followed by the selection of three questions they find most interesting or important or the three questions that they think need to be addressed first. They then share their questions and reflect on the process. David Didau describes an English lesson based on QFT focusing on ‘Of Mice and Men’ here. […]

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  16. EJ says:

    Hi, I’d like to read about your Solo Taxonomy versus Bloom’s, but my link isn’t working – has the page ‘moved’?
    Really interesting reading this forum. I only teach KS3 English at the moment, but have very able students so challenge and independence is really important for my lessons.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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