Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions

It has been a little while since I posted about professional reading here. I picked up Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana at the suggestion of colleagues at my school.

This is one of those books, sort of like Understanding by Design, that makes such a clear, compelling case in such an immediate way that you wonder how you’ve been teaching all your life without using the techniques the authors describe. You can quite literally take the Question Focus Technique (QFT) described in this book right into your classroom.

Rothstein and Santana argue that students learn better, retain more, and are more engaged if they are trained to ask questions. The way teachers can facilitate this learning is to give students a prompt, which the authors call a “QFocus” or “Question Focus.” I decided to try this out in my short Emily Dickinson unit in AP Literature.

I knew one thing I wanted my students to take away from reading Dickinson’s poetry is that word choices are important. I brainstormed potential QFocus ideas in my notebook. I started with the obvious “word choices.” That wasn’t enough, but I was encouraged by reading in Make Just One Change to start with the basics to generate ideas. Then I wrote “word choices matter.” Just to be contrary, I added: “word choices don’t matter.” In the end, this is the full list of QFocus ideas I came up with (including some quotes I found online while looking up authors’ ideas regarding word choice):

  • word choices
  • word choices matter
  • word choices don’t matter
  • words have power
  • you can use the power of words
  • “The secret of being boring is to say everything.”—Voltaire
  • “Good words are worth much, and cost little.”—George Herbert
  • You have to wrestle with word choice.
  • “I never knew what was meant by choice of words. It was one word or none.”—Robert Frost
  • “Writing a poem is discovering.”—Robert Frost
  • “Words have weight, sound, and appearance.”—Somerset Maugham

I ultimately decided on “word choices matter” as the QFocus that would best help generate questions about word choice without being too obtuse or unnecessarily provocative.

Note: I deviated a little bit from the QFT because I hadn’t read very far into the book when I already knew I wanted to introduce the idea, so I took a risk that paid off. Instead of putting students in groups to generate questions, I just wrote “word choices matter” on the board and gave the students the four rules described in Make Just One Change:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question. (43)

Then I asked the entire class to share our their question ideas rather than generate ideas in groups. It might seem easy, but it is really hard not to try to rephrase questions, and it is also hard not to place a value on the question through encouraging students who ask good ones. If you comment on the value of a question, you are liable to shut down students who think maybe their questions are not as good. And you do need to remind students of the rules. They wanted to dismiss some of the questions. I should back up and add before we generated questions, we discussed the rules and in particular which ones would be hard to follow. Rule 2 was the one they knew (rightly) they would struggle most with because they love to discuss ideas.

They came up with the following questions (unedited):

  • Why is it word choice matters instead of word choices matter?
  • Isn’t it ironic that word choices matter in a statement about word choices?
  • Why are we doing this exercise?
  • Is this supposed to be about The Hours?
  • In what context is word choices being applied?
  • Is this about Emily Dickinson?
  • Are we still going to see her house? And get lunch?
  • Do word choices always matter?
  • Do authors limit themselves to their own writing style?
  • Do authors limit readers to their (reader’s) interpretation?
  • In what scenarios does word choice matter the most?
  • Is word choice very important to all authors or just some?
  • Do authors disagree about the purpose of word choice?
  • Are we implying that the effect of words are quantified by how they compare to one another?
  • Does word choice limit emotion?
  • What is word choice?
  • How do authors use word choice to enhance their writing style?

As you can see, some of their first questions revolved around the purpose of creating questions, but they quickly generated an impressive list. The next day, I asked students to get in groups and do three things: 1) classify questions as either open-ended or closed-ended (this is an activity described in the book); 2) rewrite an open-ended question so it was closed-ended and vice versa; and 3) prioritize their top three questions.

There was quite a lot of overlap when groups prioritized their questions, and in some cases, the rewritten questions made the cut rather than the originals. This was our final list:

  • In what scenarios does word choice matter the most?
  • How do authors use word choice to enhance their writing style?
  • Do authors limit themselves to their own writing style?
  • Does word choice limit emotion? OR How does word choice limit emotion? (The question was rendered two different ways by different groups.)
  • Why is it word choices matter instead of word choice matters?
  • In what context is “word choices” being applied?

The project students are completing in this unit is to create a video or presentation in which students explain one of Dickinson’s poems and explore her word choice variants. I asked them to choose one or more questions from this list as part of their project’s focus.

One immediate observation: All of the students were more engaged, but in particular, some students who rarely participate were participating, and not just in the question generation. They continued to participate when discussing one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, which is an activity we did after generating questions.

I will be trying the QFT with my ninth graders next week. We are reading Persepolis, and I plan to show them Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”

As I did with my AP Literature class, I brainstormed potential QFocus ideas and also considered positives and negatives for each.

QFocus Idea Pros Cons
stereotypes short and sweet too broad
all stereotypes are bad  more specific too easy to agree with
no stereotypes are good more specific same, but negative, does reframe
stereotypes are both bad and good might generate divergent thinking might not generate a ton of questions
stereotypes are incomplete ties to Adichie, makes me wonder might be hard for kids to parse
social groups judge each other based on difference specific might be too specific?
we all use stereotypes sets up challenge to thinker negative response? argue back?

I was initially inclined to select the last one, but I showed my list to a colleague, and he suggested, “stereotypes are incomplete.” He argued I said myself that it “makes me wonder,” and that perhaps part of my concern about the statement being difficult to parse is what makes it good. The students will have to pick it apart. And it has the advantage of being a direct quote from Adichie’s TED Talk.

If you are looking for something to read that you can take into your classroom right away, no matter what you are doing, this book will offer you some great tools and advice. Towards the end of the book, the authors quote two great educational thinkers:

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi and scholar who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, asserted at a White House Conference on Children and Youth in 1960 that in a democratic society we should be assessing our students less on their ability to answer our questions and more on their ability to ask their own questions. The educator Paulo Freire was actually thrown in jail by a dictatorship in his native Brazil for challenging its authority and then spent much of his life after that challenging societies around the world to embrace questions and questioning as a fundamental democratic action. (154)

Something I actually wrote in the margins of my book on page 7, “Wonder if Parkland teachers use QFT.” It would explain the students’ activism and leadership.

All I can say about QFT is my first thought is “Why didn’t I think of this before?” and my second is “This is going to change everything.”

3 thoughts on “Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions”

  1. Hello! I am a future secondary ELA educator, and I’m always on the look out for books that will help me become the best teacher than I can be. I’ve always thought that students could learn better if they ask their own questions, but find that students often shy away from asking questions. Or, students do not know what questions to ask. However, if students are taught how to ask questions, I think it will definitely help them to learn more in every class that they take.

  2. In high school, I took four English electives with the same teacher. For most of the writing assignments, he gave us a choice of essay questions. However, in one case, he tasked us with writing our own essay question. I had never been told to write an essay question before this. Teachers had asked us to write discussion questions to share in class, but I had never needed to develop a question that would sustain a three-to-four-page essay. If I remember correctly, he had us write open-ended and closed-ended questions on a notecard, and then we shared them as he typed them into a document that was projected on the board.

    Before starting the task, I feared that I would not be able to generate any essay-worthy questions. This fear stemmed from the fact that I had never really approached a text from the standpoint of inquiry; I had always been trying to write statements in the margins of my books, not questions. The act of writing my own essay question helped change my mindset, allowing me to see the power of asking questions while reading. Because it added nuance to an idea that I had noted while reading, the question that I developed helped me think about the text from a new angle. Furthermore, I felt empowered by my ability to write an essay question – a type of question which had previously always been presented to me by a teacher.

    I often reflect on this question-writing task when I think about the way that I want to organize my future English classroom. The activity that you describe here seems to be a more structured version of the one in which I participated as a student. Your activity helps students become skilled at developing complex questions from short, seemingly simple prompts, showing them that short statements can inspire deeper thinking if considered from the mindset of an inquiring thinker. All of the skills that come from this activity – generating questions, writing questions, editing questions, and evaluating questions as a group – build students’ critical-thinking muscles and will serve them well in their future schooling and beyond.

    Thanks for the reading recommendation. I will definitely be buying this book and trying the activity in my class.

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