An inquirED Blog

Questioning: The Key to Unlocking the Power of Inquiry in Social Studies

To practice inquiry in social studies, educators must craft powerful questions AND help students build their questioning power. To discuss these critical components of inquiry, we were joined on our webinar by Warren Berger (Journalist and Author), Sarah Westbrook (Director of Professional Learning, The Right Question Institute), and Anthony Sievert (Learning Experience Architect, inquirED). Read below for a summary and reflection and check out the recording below the fold.


A New Focus on Questions

Before this webinar, I tried to cast my mind back to my pre-service teacher days, straining to remember what my classes and textbooks had to say about the importance of questions. It wasn’t much. The whole of my instruction seems to have been this advice: “After you ask a question, wait five seconds.”

Warren Berger joined us on the webinar and shared that he, too, received little training in questioning as he prepared for his profession, in his case for a career in journalism. “You’re training someone to be a journalist,” Berger shared, “you would think you would train them on the thing that they are going to do every single day.”

So Berger fine-tuned his questioning skills himself throughout his career, but as he questioned and wrote, he began to realize the importance of questions across professions. The great innovators, business leaders, and change-makers he interviewed were also great question askers. Additionally, as he researched the significant products and creations throughout history, he usually found a question at the root. “If you trace these things back to their origin,” he said, “somebody is asking a question at the beginning of the process.”

Berger now calls himself a “questionologist,” researching and writing about the power of questions. “There is a need for it in the world,” he said, “and now I think we know more than ever that we need questions to sift through the information coming at us.”

So, if Warren Berger had his way, I probably would have had a class or two in questioning in my teacher prep program — maybe even by a certified questionologist! But what would have been the focus of those classes?

Student Questioning

Sarah Westbrook, Director of Professional Learning at the Right Question Institute (RQI), joined us on the webinar and shared her belief we should start by focusing on student questions. “So often we focus on adults asking questions to students,” she shared, “instead of helping students ask questions themselves and develop their questioning skills.”

Much of RQI’s work in K12 education does just that, utilizing its most well-known protocol, The Question Formation Technique. Westbrook described the QFT as “a deliberately simple step-by-step strategy,” but one in which “you’re doing sophisticated thinking all the way through it.” If you are interested in best practices for applying the QFT, you can register for the online course offered through the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Westbrook brought examples of student questions generated during the QFT. One of those examples, from a 7th grade class in Folsom, CA, used a Dorthea Lange photograph (see photo) as a prompt – or “QFocus” in QFT terminology. Students asked a wide range of questions about the image, from the profound (“Did they ever get full-fledged justice?”) to the innocuous (“Is that a BMW or something?”).