Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Question Formulation Technique, Design Thinking and the Inquiry Cycle

Following on from my last post - a guest post from our iCommons Coordinator Heeru Bhojwani - I would like to write about a method of questioning that she introduced to me recently.  Devised by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, this is a technique to teach students to ask their own questions.  It is a process that allows them to think more deeply and refine their questions and one that encourages divergent thinking, convergent thinking and metacognition.  As I considered the process of divergent thinking (generating a wide range of ideas, thinking creatively) and convergent thinking (analyzing and synthesizing information while moving towards a solution), it reminded me of the flair and focus stages of Design Thinking.

In Design Thinking the first stage is Empathy - this is where there is a flair with ideas coming from all over the place and where you consider both the explicit and implicit needs of others.  This is followed by the focus of the Define phase where some ideas are thrown out in order to come up with a unique, concise reframing of the problem, grounded in the insights developed in the previous stage.  After Design comes Ideate, which is a huge flair.  The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) uses divergent thinking as the flair where students are generating ideas about possible research topics, perhaps using "out of the box" thinking and coming up with inventive new ideas.  It is a process that can be taught to students of all ages to help them handle challenges.

Creativity involves more than simply divergent thinking - it involves synthesizing the ideas and facts.  In the PYP inquiry cycle we talk about tuning in and finding out.  After this comes sorting out which to me matches really well with convergent thinking.  During this stage of the inquiry cycle students look at all the facts they have collected during the finding out and try to make sense of them all.  It is suggested that fostering creativity involves planning for both divergent and convergent thinking and that metacognition, being able to reflect and think about your own thinking, is essential for learning.  The QFT is a process for fostering these skills.

Step 1 - The Question Focus
This is what we refer to as the "tuning in" stage of a PYP inquiry and involves using a stimulus or provocation to encourage students to ask questions.  One difference is that this is not a "teacher question" but is a focus for student questions.

Step 2 - Rapidly Producing Questions
This stage uses a protocol to encourage students to generate their own questions in groups.  The rules for this are:
  • Ask as many questions as you can
  • Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer any questions
  • Write down every question exactly as it was stated
  • Change any statements into questions
Step 3 - Categorizing the Questions
Once all the questions have been generated, they are categorized into open and closed questions. Closed questions can be answered with a yes or no, or with a one word answer.  Open questions are those that require an explanation. They are looked at again to see if the questions can be rewritten and sharpened - some closed questions can be improved and turned into open questions.

Step 4 - Prioritizing the Questions
Students start to look at the questions to find out which ones are the ones that will help them get the information they need.  This stage involves comparing all the questions assessing which are the most useful.  Students may also sequence the questions as some may need to be answered before others.

The PYP supports student learning by having them draw on their prior knowledge and by providing provocations and experiences so that students can construct their own understanding.  The pedagogy is significantly dependent on students' inquiry and students become more engaged and take ownership of their learning.  Students are encouraged to be curious, to ask questions and to explore and design their own inquiries that will help them find responses to their own issues and interests.  Classroom experiences are planned by teachers to help students respond to the questions they have generated.  I think that the Question Formulation Technique could be a great way to have students focus on what they want to learn.

Would you like to know more about the QFT?  Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana have written a book about it entitled Make Just One Change.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Compfight cc


  1. I have read another excellent article and they call this methodology "Catalytic Questionning".

  2. Rebecca and I used this technique last year in Gr. 3 and the results were brilliant. We found it a great way to help students pose problems at any stage of a UOI.