Beautiful Questions

By David D’Altorio, 8th grade cultural studies teacher

What if questions are more important than answers?

As any parent or early childhood educator knows, young children are natural and incessant questioners. It makes sense – for much of our early lives, every day holds previously unknown objects, sensations, and experiences. We must ask questions simply to understand what’s happening around us.

But as we become more ontologically secure, we become less curious; according to a 2009 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 50% of middle school students ask questions about their knowledge and experiences on any given day.

As a middle school teacher, that statistic is troubling to me. Some of the most powerful moments in my classroom have been when students were able to ask a question that opened the door to a body of knowledge or a line of thinking that they never knew existed before. It was perhaps even more troubling as a citizen of the 21st century. These days, our ability to sift through mountains of irrelevant, inaccurate, or intentionally deceptive information is being tested like never before. In all this informational static, I know that great questions serve as antennae that help us find the signals in the noise.

For these reasons, I decided to try a new tool in my cultural studies classroom this fall. I learned about it through our faculty and staff summer reading book, Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question. Berger explores how entrepreneurs, artists, activists, and educators have improved their businesses, schools, and lives by consciously asking more – and more novel – questions. It’s called the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), and it’s deceptively simple. In essence, the teacher presents the students with a claim about which they must then develop as many questions as they can. Afterwards, the class examines and discusses their questions, chooses which ones are most interesting or important, and uses them to focus further reading and inquiry.

So, to kick off our study of the American Revolution, I presented to my eighth graders the following claim: If people are unhappy with their government, they should be allowed to get rid of that government. After five minutes of furious question generation, every one of my students had developed deep, complex, and fundamental questions about the nature of political revolutions generally. For example:

  • “Would the government be replaced with a new one? What kind?”

  • “Is everyone unhappy, or just some of them?”

  • “What would happen to people who liked the government?”

  • “Would the place just become chaos?”

  • “Would there be violence?”

Such questions provide students an opportunity to think through the momentous challenges and decisions facing such revolutionaries as Britain’s North American colonists in the 1770s. They also enable students to focus their efforts during our class readings and discussions on questions they have framed for themselves, giving them additional incentive and investment in finding an answer.

We’ve just started experimenting with this tool, but I’m already encouraged and excited to see how far it can take us. I know that teaching students to ask better, “more beautiful” questions will help them succeed in school. I hope it will also help them succeed as thoughtful citizens.