Friday, August 9, 2013

Using the Question Formation Technique to Explore Conceptual Ideas in Elementary Social Studies

Just yesterday, we were able to bring together 100 teachers for a Preschool-6th grade Social Studies Kickoff, with the goal of exposing teachers to new ideas, elevating strategies and tools for critical thinking, and enhancing collaboration among elementary social studies teachers.

With our district's focus on concept-based learning and quality instruction, we decided to expose teachers to an instructional strategy from the Right Question Institute out of Harvard University. We chose this strategy because asking questions is a strategy that's used by teachers in all content areas at all grade levels. The Right Question Institute developed a well-researched and incredibly powerful critical thinking experience known as the Question Formation Technique.  Their rationale for designing this technique is explained by one of the book's authors, Dan Rothstein,  in this TED Talk (13:41). In this talk, you'll notice how the skill of asking questions declines from age 5 to age 18.  You might predict that a variety of variables impact this pattern, but the bottom line is...IT'S SAD! Asking questions is a skill, and it's a skill that needs developing if we are to have students who participate in society as critical thinkers.  With the Question Formation Technique, teachers "express deep satisfaction as they see their students rapidly develop divergent, convergent, and metacognitive thinking abilities and become more confident learners." (p. 2) (To find out more, check out the link above or look into their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.)
The Question Formation Technique involves a process where teachers design something known as a Question Focus, an "item" designed to elicit questions and critical thinking from the learner. Learners then engage in a process using the Question Focus, a process where each step has been carefully studied and refined to maximize the questioning and critical thinking experience for learners.  In general, this is the process.  (Teachers can access all necessary resources by creating a log-in at and looking under "resources.")

Below, you'll find a list of each Question Focus that was developed specifically for social studies in each grade level.  Included is a general sense of the conceptual ideas we were hoping would be elevated when learners were engaged in the Question Formation Technique.  Every Question Focus was designed as an introduction to a significant conceptual idea so students would begin to explore questions at the heart of learning instead of the teacher simply presenting the essential questions for the learning. We felt that this process created greater ownership by learners, and in this case, ownership of future learning that is based on conceptual curriculum goals or understandings.   (NOTE: A Question Focus might be applicable to other grades depending on the purpose for its use.  Questions will always be different as individuals, as groups, and as critical thinking abilities develop among learners.)

Question Focus Samples: Preschool to 6th Grade
  • 6th grade Question Focus: This was designed to be used with a Western Hemisphere study when students begin to examine the era of European exploration and to consider multiple perspectives when analyzing the impact of exploration on early cultures of the Western Hemisphere.
  • 5th grade Question Focus: This was designed to be used with a unit titled Changing Face of North America: Emergence of a New World Society (We no longer use the Euro-centric title of "Colonial America"). The goal was to elicit questions related to why people came to the Atlantic coast of North America, where they settled, why, and the patterns that existed within this migration of people.
  • 4th grade Question Focus: This was designed to go with a state study of Colorado.  The goal was to cause learners to ask who came to Colorado over time, why, and where did they settle.
  • 3rd grade Question Focus: This was designed to go with a study of Denver titled The Big City.  The goal was to illuminate the idea that citizens and government work together to create important changes over time. 
  • 2nd grade Question Focus: This was designed to go with a civics study.  The goal was to cause students to think about various forms of conflict and active citizenship of students.  An image of the man scratching his head was placed on a mirror and then the mirror was placed at the top of the page where you see three scenarios of conflicting students.
  • 1st grade Question Focus:  This was designed to go with a history unit and was created to help students consider how and why things have continued to stay the same or change over time. This is the history concept of continuity and change over time
  • Kindergarten Question Focus: This was designed to go with a civics study where students explore the purpose of classroom rules, citizenship, and roles within the classroom.
  • Preschool Question Focus: This was designed to go with civics learning related to respectful interaction and classroom rules. 

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