Social Studies: questions are as important as answers

Humans are naturally inquisitive. Young children tend to ask an abundance of questions, yet the volume of questions posed by students often dwindles in middle and high school. Learners at all grade levels benefit from the opportunity to devise questions and seek answers.  If students are taught how to ask questions they will learn how to learn. Students frequently hear there is no such thing as a bad question, yet some questions are better than others. How do we help students learn how to ask good questions?

Explicit instruction in crafting thoughtful questions is necessary support for student inquiry. Direct instruction and on-going opportunities in the formulation of effective questions provide students with access to deeper learning and meaningful engagement in social studies. Following twenty years of experience and tinkering, the Right Question Institute developed the Question Formulation Technique, a practical and highly effective tool for use by social studies classroom teachers. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana authored, Make Just One Change: Teach Student to Ask Their Own Questions (2011) to provide educators with a description and analysis of the protocol that can be used with students in grades PK-12.

Teacher can apply the protocol to help students to generate questions that support inquiry.

There are six key components of the Question Formulation Technique.The list below outlines the components:

  • Design a Question Focus: a stimulus is provided to serve as the starting point for student questions.
  • Produce Questions: student creates questions following four simple rules.
    • Ask as many questions as they can
    • Do not stop to discuss or answer questions
    • Write down every question exactly as stated
    • Change any statement into a question
  • Improve Questions: student categorizes questions into closed-ended and open-ended and refine questions.
  • Prioritize Questions: student identifies the most important questions.
  • Determine Next Steps: teacher and student determine how to use the priority questions.
  • Reflect: student identifies what they learned and how they can use what they learned.

While the protocol focuses largely on what students do, as always teacher facilitation and support is critical for ensuring the success of a protocol. Teachers can support the Question Formation Technique by:

  • Designing rich stimuli that create a context for questions.
  • Supporting the question brainstorming process by creating an environment where students create questions without discussion and change statements into questions.
  • Ensuring that students understand the difference between closed-ended and open-ended questions.
  • Facilitating the prioritizing of questions. This may include helping students to identify approaches for prioritizing.
  • Providing adequate time for students to reflect on their learning and how they can use it.

The skill of asking questions opens doors to new ideas and essential learning. Good questions generate more questions; intentional instruction in formulating good questions leads to more engaging educational experiences for learners of all ages. Visit the Right Question Institute for free resources and more information, including QFT in Action, a short video that depicts the steps of the Question Formulation Technique.

For more information  contact Maine DOE Social Studies Specialist Kristie Littlefield at