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What Does a Whole Child Approach to Education Look Like?
March 29, 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 13
Table of Contents 

Sharing the Power of the Question

Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana

Here's a curious way to think about whole child education: we should dwell on all that a student does not know.

Certainly, this is a surefire way to discourage rather than engage students, denigrate rather than support them, and threaten their security rather than provide a safe environment for a budding intellect and sensitive feelings. It sounds nothing like what whole child education should be about. How, then, could an emphasis on what they do not know be helpful to students? It would be helpful if, and only if, we do not name it, but rather give students a chance to name what they don't know.

What is the most powerful tool for allowing students to name what they don't know? A question. Not one from us to them, but rather, questions students themselves ask. A classroom in which students are learning to produce their own questions, improve their questions, and strategize on how to use them is an environment in which students are challenged, engaged, and supported. And, if they are asking their own questions, exposing what they do not know, naming what they do not understand, then that must also be a classroom in which they feel safe.

Knowing how to ask questions is no small matter. It is actually a very sophisticated thinking skill. Edward Witten, considered to be Einstein's successor at the Institute for Advanced Study, says that he spends much of his time "trying to figure out the right questions to ask." If Witten still needs to be asking questions, then surely so do students. And when students start asking their own questions, teachers observe significant cognitive, affective, and behavioral changes for high-achieving as well as struggling students. Teachers have seen that using a rigorous process for deliberately teaching students how to ask their own questions—going well beyond the teacher's automatic, "Do you have any questions?"—quickly changes the dynamics of learning and classroom culture.

We propose four rules for producing questions, as part of the Question Formulation Technique (explained in greater detail in our book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions). Teach and practice these with your students, and we believe you will also be supporting the tenets of a whole child education.

  1. Ask as many questions as you can. This lets students know it is OK to ask and keep asking. While this may be initially intimidating for many students, we've found that most become excited and engaged with this new opportunity to drive their own learning.

  2. Do not stop to discuss, critique, or answer any question. This keeps the generative process moving, and creates a safe space to raise questions without judgment. Neither you, nor your students, can know what's worth discussing until they've had the opportunity to produce as many questions as possible.

  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated. As with rule two, this ensures that all voices are respected and heard in your classroom. One step further: it also eliminates the tendency for teachers to over-scaffold, rephrase students' questions, and essentially do the thinking for students.

  4. Change any statement into a question. Students often think they are asking a question when they've stated something they want to know more about. This rule challenges students to practice discipline in phrasing, asking, and thinking in questions—not statements.

Each of these rules builds on the other to create a classroom that promotes deeper learning and greater enjoyment of learning by nurturing students' ability to name what they do not yet know and set a learning agenda. Students who know how to ask their own questions are on the road to becoming self-directed learners.

Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana are codirectors of the Right Question Institute and coauthors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, Harvard Education Press (September 2011).


ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 13. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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