Academics, Faculty

Embodying Trust in Our Students

By ​Adina Meyer

On the plane to Boston to attend the International Conference on the Best Practices in the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), I re-read Paulo Freire’s powerful book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In the forward of the book, Richard Schaull reminds us of Paolo Freire’s “conviction that every human being, no matter how ‘ignorant’ or submerged in the ‘culture of silence’ is capable of looking critically at the world in a dialogical encounter with others. Provided with the proper tools for such an encounter, the individual can gradually perceive personal and social reality as well as the contradictions in it, and deal critically with it. In this process, the old paternalistic teacher-student relationship is overcome.”

It struck me that the Question Formulation Technique is another powerful tool to overcome the paternalistic teacher-student relationship.

The QFT involves asking as many questions as you can without stopping to judge, discuss or answer them. It involves writing down each question exactly as stated, and changing any statement into a question. Students then choose priority questions upon which to take action. They may ask themselves: “What do I need to know in order to answer these questions? What do I need to do?” They can then make an action plan for reading, research, interviews, listening to lectures, or whatever else they have decided are their next steps. In this way, students are empowered to take charge of their own learning. Motivated and curious because they themselves have posed the questions, they become more self-directed, independent learners.

Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein, the founders of the Right Question Institute (which sponsored the conference) describe the QFT as “a catalyst for microdemocracy,” whereby students – and in fact, all people – can learn to ask better questions and participate more effectively in key decisions. 

When I was first introduced to this simple technique by my daughter, Rowan (a public school Montessori teacher), I had no idea that the QFT was being implemented in a variety of arenas, from healthcare to voter education. Rowan uses it with her first, second, and third graders in what she calls “philosophy discussions” to create a democratic classroom. I spent this past academic year trying it out, and was eager to learn more about how to implement it.

I quickly saw how the Right Question Institute could help me embody Freire’s idea of trust in the students: the QFT relies on students, not teachers, asking the questions. As Freire writes of the teacher, “Her efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization. His efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them.”

When we arrived at the conference, we first heard a talk by Dan and Luz about the philosophical basis of the QFT. We learned that “the QFT honors NOT knowing.” We learned that the reflection and self-reflection encouraged by teachers employing the QFT is one of the most effective metacognitive strategies in existence, and that the technique is currently being employed by more than 250,000 educators.

Next, we practiced the QFT by using a Question Focus – a statement, an image, even a piece of music that generates as many questions as possible. One of the most important skills teachers practice is the formulation of a Question Focus (Qfocus) for students to use. After practicing the QFT ourselves, we heard testimonials from teachers and students about the meaning, relevance, and effectiveness of the QFT for examining bias, preparing for Socratic seminars, generating writing and research projects, and most important, creating curiosity, enthusiasm, and empowerment in students.

Dan wrapped up by reminding us that Septima Clark, a teacher fired in Charleston 1958 for being an NAACP member, was a primary inspiration for them. She set up citizenship schools, taught adult illiterates to read and write, and talked incessantly about teaching folks how to ask questions. 

What did I learn on the first day? I learned I have work to do. Anxious students, aiming to please, who want to know the hoops to jump through and ask, “Are we going to have to know this?” demonstrate the “banking” way of learning. Freire assesses the “banking” model this way: “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of the world.” At Northwest, we embody a “critical thinking” model, and we are responsible for making sure our students are not just thinking critically so that they can “perform.” I want to be able to use the QFT to break as far out of this paradigm as possible. 

The next day we heard presentations from teachers who employ the QFT in a wide variety of areas. We met an administrator from Colorado who uses the QFT to promote a stronger sense of community throughout his elementary school. We heard from a school librarian who uses the QFT to help students navigate the world of misinformation that is the Internet. We learned from an ESL teacher who uses the QFT to help students with active listening skills, a French teacher who uses primary sources and the QFT to help students develop empathy, an administrative team who uses the QFT to foster better professional development for faculty, and decision making about policy and curriculum that is more transparent.

One of my favorite presenters was a teacher from East LA who uses the QFT to help students work for social justice. She quoted John Dewey, “Democracy has to be enacted anew,” and told us how she uses the QFT to achieve this. Students learn to ask questions, advocate for their communities, and ultimately grow into informed citizens. She told us how she and her students had learned to ask and prioritize questions about gentrification, mental health, police shootings, environmental hazards, immigration reform, educational equity, and a dozen other topics that students not only want to learn more about but also how to effect positive change. 

On the final day, we heard from Luz and Dan again, this time about the way in which the QFT could be used as a framework for “accountable decision making,” identifying a decision, then using a set of criteria to ask questions about these decisions. Dan told us stories of using the QFT with various underserved populations including sugar cane plantation workers in Hawaii, immigrant parents in New Mexico, and adult literacy students in New Hampshire. As he related stories about reaching out to groups of parents to teach them about accountable decision-making and the democratic process, I realized he was really talking about using the QFT to empower the disempowered. Dan and Luz are committed to creating what they call microdemocracy – individuals asking questions and participating effectively in decisions in their encounters with programs, services and institutions that were created (supposedly) in order to serve them but often do not. 

The core skills they help folks develop include the ability to to identify decisions and formulate questions about them. They learn how to ask questions about the reason for the decision (why), the process (how) and the roles of people involved in the process (who). This process empowers the participants, and helps to disrupt hierarchical models of leadership. For instance, Luz told me, when participants write down the question exactly as stated (one of the four rules of the QFT) they hear their own voices and see their words as they want them presented. Every one of the four rules is designed to create space for people to be valued for their contributions. 

As a final summative evaluation, students might write their own exams using the questions. They might post the questions on the walls of the classroom and cross them off as they answer them. The teacher might assign a short paper in response to one of the questions or facilitate a Socratic seminar using only student-generated questions. They might use the questions for self-evaluation or peer review; metacognition, reflection on one’s own learning, is an essential part of this process.  Asking “What did I learn? How did I learn it?” is a powerful way for students to take ownership of their own classroom experiences. 

The QFT has been used with everyone from the barely literate to the highly educated. In addition, it works for everyone. What they have in common is the powerful experience of the agency they have from generating and answering their own questions, then reflecting on them.  

In the words of Paulo Freire: “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”