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September 28, 2017
Vol. 13
No. 2

Helping Parents Ask Good Questions

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You wish you could spend time with every student's parents or guardians to make sure all adults in their lives are pulling in the same direction, but many of them are busy working two jobs to pay the bills. Many seem uncomfortable and disengaged in a school setting. You know school-family partnerships aren't a silver bullet that will fix your students' education and socioeconomic challenges, but without strong school-family partnerships, your students are less likely to thrive.

An "Open-Source" Option

The Right Question Institute's work with educators across America has taught us that many schools have little time and few resources, if any, to devote to family partnerships, even when they want to. We've spent more than 25 years working in diverse settings developing a family engagement strategy that's practical, quick to deploy, and adaptable: the Right Question School-Family Partnership Strategy. It is not a comprehensive program that requires new staff, extra funding, or retooling organizational structures. It just calls for educators to build parents' skills into their ongoing work.

Giving Parents Fish When They Should Be Fishing

This strategy stems from work in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which had, by the 1990s, suffered generations of economic decline. We were working on a dropout prevention program, and, in collaborating with parents—many of them immigrants from low- and moderate-income households—we learned that they avoided school involvement because they "didn't even know what to ask."
Our solution was to give them lists of questions to ask about a wide range of issues: homework, disciplinary policies, special education programs, you name it. But every week parents would come to us and request more questions. We had inadvertently made them more dependent on us.

The Question Formulation Technique (QFT)

How do you teach parents to ask better questions? Through years of trial and error, we developed a simple yet effective method that anyone can learn. The QFT can benefit everyone, from Microsoft executives to clients at homeless shelters to Harvard medical students. We have used this method in all those settings. More than 250,000 classrooms use it on every continent except Antarctica (that we know of). In a nutshell, it develops people's ability to produce questions, improve those questions, and strategize about how to ask them or use them.

How the QFT Works

You can work with parents and guardians in groups or individually to do the following:
1. Produce questions.
Start by determining a Question Focus, or QFocus, which focuses the generation of questions around a particular issue or concern. A QFocus can draw from situations a child is facing, parental concerns, or developments at school. It is often a brief statement such as, "The school recommends an individual education program for your child" or "Some teaching practices will change to improve education for all students." One important rule is it cannot be a question. You can find resources for crafting a QFocus—and for the QFT in general—at
Next, share these rules about producing questions:
  • Ask as many questions as you can.
  • Do not discuss, judge, or answer the questions.
  • Write every question exactly as it is stated.
  • Change any statements into questions.
Parents should briefly discuss challenges they might encounter when following these rules. For instance, they often struggle with not stopping to answer questions. With the QFocus and these rules as a springboard, parents produce questions. Educators should not give examples of questions, which could unintentionally influence the process.
2. Improve questions.
Once parents have produced a list of questions, facilitate a discussion about improving them. This begins by identifying closed- and open-ended questions. A closed-ended question has a yes/no or one-word answer. Parents discuss advantages and disadvantages of each type of question, then practice changing one or two closed-ended questions to open-ended ones and vice versa. This process allows parents to understand that the way a question is asked may shape its answer.
3. Prioritize questions.
During prioritization, parents think more deeply about their questions. You may, for example, instruct them to prioritize three questions that are most important to them, that they would like answered first, or that they want to explore further. You can tailor prioritization instructions to fit the circumstances.
4. Discuss next steps.
To strategize about using the prioritized questions, discuss next steps and define an action plan. The action plan may include identifying information parents want to discover and specific steps for acquiring that information.
5. Reflect.
Parents reflect on what they've learned and how they can use this new skill. This helps them consider the importance of asking questions and how they can apply this skill elsewhere in their lives.

QFT in Practice

To illustrate this method, here's a quick example based on our work in the field. Here, a teacher helps a mother generate questions during a parent-teacher conference. Before the meeting, the teacher develops this QFocus: "Your child seems to be having trouble doing his homework." Rather than just telling the mother about this problem, the teacher introduces the QFT.
The mother is a little confused at first, but agrees to participate. The teacher informally discusses the four rules for producing questions; then she presents the mother with the QFocus. With some prompting, the mother produces a list of questions about her son:
  1. Is he behaving?
  2. Is he causing problems?
  3. Is he doing his homework?
  4. What do you mean by "trouble"?
  5. How do you know he's having trouble?
  6. When did this start?
  7. Did he do his homework before?
  8. Is he getting punished for not doing his homework?
  9. What's going to happen to him?
  10. Why do you think he's having trouble?
  11. What should I do to make sure he does his homework?
  12. What happens when he doesn't do his homework?
  13. Will he be held back?
The teacher and mother discuss the questions, and the mother prioritizes numbers 10, 11, and 13. In strategizing about how to use the questions, the mother and teacher work together to develop a simple plan. They tell the child his mother expects to see homework every night and will initial it whether he completes it or not. If he can't complete his homework because he doesn't understand it, the teacher will help him.

Subtle but Significant Changes

The QFT helps parents gain confidence engaging with educators, leading to a more hopeful and positive outlook. They become more effective at participating in decisions, supporting their child's education, monitoring their child's progress, and advocating for their child when necessary.

A New Way of Working with Parents

Schools implement a variety of activities to engage parents. These include things like open houses, breakfast meetings, and parent resource centers. The Right Question Strategy can enhance such activities. When educators integrate the development of parents' questions into their practice, the focus shifts from teacher-driven conversations to a process where parents help set the agenda and identify information they need. The following table summarizes this shift in practice.

Helping Parents Ask Good Questions-table

Shift away from doing this:

Shift toward doing this:

• Telling parents what they should know.• Providing parents with a process to identify what they want to know.
• Asking parents at the end of a conversation, "Do you have any questions?"• Setting aside time at the beginning for parents to produce questions, improve those questions, and strategize about how to use them.
• Telling parents what they should do.• Providing a structure for parents to think about and name what they can do.

Luz Santana is the codirector of the Right Question Institute and the coauthor of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (2011).

One of the founders of the Right Question Institute, Santana is now a nationally recognized educational innovator, facilitator, and keynote speaker in English and Spanish who has designed a wide range of participatory learning curricula in many fields, including parent involvement, adult education, social services, health care, immigrant advocacy, neighborhood organizing, and voter engagement. Her work has been featured in the Boston Globe, international press in Spanish, and on National Public Radio.

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