Pass / Fail

So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

How do you teach students to ask questions?

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It's summer vacation, but a bunch of educators are gathered at Wildwood School in Mar Vista. They spread a poster across a worktable and start listing questions - about why students don't ask more questions.

"Which kids do not ask their own questions?" asked Joel Ramirez, an assistant principal at Aspire Ollin University Preparatory Academy. 

"What squashes a child's curiosity?" asked Isabel Morales, a social studies teacher at Los Angeles High School of the Arts. 

Dan Rothstein is roaming the room, encouraging teachers to keep listing their questions. It's not about getting the answers - at least, not yet. He's walking them through the "question formulation technique" he wants them to teach their students when school starts in the fall.

When done right, he said the results are almost magical.

"This becomes a short cut that they hadn't anticipated," Rothstein said. Students "are so much more ready to engage in the content that the teachers need to teach."

As schools across the country move to embrace new Common Core learning standards meant to increase critical thinking, teachers are turning to approaches like Rothstein's to help in the transition.

Dozens of teachers took his day-long training on Monday, many of them Los Angeles Unified school district teachers.

Here's how Rothstein maps out the technique:

  1. Develop a question focus
  2. Produce your questions 
  3. Improve your questions
  4. Prioritize your questions
  5. Discuss next steps
  6. Reflect

It took teachers about an hour to move through the process.

The technique started as a way to help low-income families inquire about medical care and to help immigrants navigate social service agencies. Asking the right questions in those cases can literally be life or death.

Rothstein co-directs the Right Question Institute with Luz Santana and they now use the methodology to push students into inquiry-based learning. they go around the country teaching their question-asking method.

"Sometimes we are received with skepticism because of its simplicity," Santana said. "Then how can it be so powerful? It is because it changes the way people think, it changes the way people  see themselves, it builds their confidence."

California State University, Los Angles chemistry professor Carlos Gutierrez attended the training, and said when students don't get these skills early, he has to play catch-up with them in college.

"Perhaps they don't want to reveal what they don't know about a subject, and so they are missing out on the really important part about science – the centrality of the question," he said.

Rothstein is the first to point out inquiry-based learning isn't a revolutionary idea. It can be traced back to Socrates.

But social studies teacher Isabel Morales said her own job depends on learning to teach techniques like this one. New teacher evaluation score sheets at L.A. Unified measure whether students are engaged in their teacher’s lessons.

“The higher end of that rubric is: students ask their own questions," she said. "It is something my colleagues and I have been trying to figure out."

Another participant, Hali Metelak, a Common Core coach at L.A. Unified, said she's going to teach Rothstein and Santana's technique to teachers at her schools.

"Common Core is really bringing education back to this idea in making students interested in what they are learning about again, and not just the idea of finding one right answer and filling in that bubble," Metelak said.

Metelak sees question formulation leading to more engaged students, higher-level thinking and greater ownership of the material.

"You know, it’s just the natural curiosity that I think our students have lost,” she said.

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