A Librarian Asks, "What Is the QFT and How Does It Fit the Library?"
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What Is the QFT and How Does It Fit the Library?

The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is a procedure for deepening student learning through question generation, analysis, and reflection. The teacher chooses a prompt—called a QFocus—that directs students' thinking toward a learning goal. Students brainstorm questions about the prompt without self-judging or commenting on them.

After brainstorming, students systematically categorize questions into:

C—Close-ended (convergent) questions, which call for a yes, no, or short answer

O—Open-ended (divergent) questions, which require explanations and thought

C/O—Ambiguous questions

Welcoming Curiosity

Educators often prefer higher-order questions because they push thinking beyond knowledge toward understanding. The success of problem-based learning, reading comprehension, literature discussions, backwards design, and inquiry-based curricula depends on divergent questioning ("Classroom Lesson"; McTighe and Wiggins; "Question-Answer Relationship"; "Socratic Seminar"). Since QFT maintains the value of both types of questions, students are given practice in changing from one to the other. In weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each type, students are learning to think about their thinking.

The Question Formulation Technique can support student curiosity at every stage of learning. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, codirectors of the Right Question Institute and coauthors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, have found that when students generate and discuss their own questions they are more engaged, self-reflective, and exhibit greater confidence as learners.

Clarity of Goals

According to QFT's directions, the prompt should align with an instructional goal, such as increasing student engagement, accelerating knowledge acquisition, or formatively or summatively assessing students (Rothstein et al.).

Instructional objectives like these are key to effective learning. Obviously, whether educators are using QFT or not, they should aim for an engaging environment in which students are curious, acquire knowledge, and believe in their competence as learners.

The Art of Prompting Questions

Unlike QFT, protocols such as the Library of Congress' Primary Source Analysis Tool ("Teacher's Guides") and the National Archives' worksheets ("Document Analysis") allow either the teacher or the student to select the prompt. They begin with adult-generated questions to activate close observation and inference (e.g., What do you see? What does it mean?), and then shift to engage student-generated curiosity (What do you wonder?).

The prompt for these protocols may be an image, text, audio or video clip, data, or even an artifact or physical object. The designers of QFT assert that selecting a prompt with "too many small details or references to other points" isn't clear and is likely to distract students (Rothstein and Santana 30). Given their emphasis on characterizing QFT as quick to learn and simple to use, perhaps they're concerned that a complex prompt will be seen as taking too long to introduce. While another teacher's QFocus list might stimulate your ideas, expect to fine-tune the prompt to fit your actual needs.

"See, Think, Wonder," another routine that asks for observation and response to an image or object, also underscores the critical importance of selecting the correct sort of prompt, but endorses a more unhurried approach "generally …the image/object has some ambiguity to it, is not already known to students, offers many different layers of explanation, and possesses a degree of detail that is likely to emerge only after extended looking" (Richhart et al. 56). QFT's creators are less convinced that a visual can speak in its own language: "When using pictures, diagrams or equations…think about how to frame them clearly…[you need] a statement framing what you are presenting. Otherwise, the students will not know what they are expected to focus on and will not generate questions" (Rothstein and Santana 40).

Of course, a prompt that steers students toward a particular point of view, feels inauthentic, or activates implicit biases would thwart QFT's purpose. To test a QFocus, imagine questions that students might raise or ask a colleague to role-play brainstorming. In the final analysis, a prompt is best evaluated during actual teaching because it provides concrete, actionable feedback for your future instruction.

As part of the initial planning, one identifies where this routine fits into the learning sequence. QFT's "Lesson Planning Workbook" identifies opportunities where the protocol might be used such as a pre-reading activity, to stimulate curiosity about a topic, issue, or theme, or to guide a research paper or project.

It's tempting to engage students with an unusual or even wacky prompt but the focus should remain central to the teaching goal or the activity will be engaging but insipid (Marzano et al. 113). Sara Kelley-Mudie, library director at Thayer Academy frequently adjusts the QFT:

"I'll give a list of question starters and talk about kinds of answers you're looking for with those questions. Are you exploring causality? Are you looking for patterns? Are you establishing similarities and differences? This is great once we have open-ended questions and are trying to figure out what kind of questions we want to add."

Clarity of Instruction

The QFT workbook also provides phrasing for the prioritizing instructions that help students decide on their top three questions:

  • you consider most important
  • will help you with your research
  • will help you solve the problem

Rephrasing, categorizing, and selecting questions improves their quality because students are thinking – refining language, comparing meaning, contrasting impact and value. Instructions should be "clear, but not overly prescriptive… [and] related to our original purpose, the design of the QFocus, and where you are going with your next steps" (Rothstein and Santana 90).

However, at this critical juncture, I'd be wary of vague instructions that are likely to confuse students. They need to understand why they are learning something and how what they're doing helps them learn it (Frey et al. 44). Essentially, what knowledge, skills or dispositions are you asking students to apply? To what end? What specifically do you want students to know and be able to do—and why?

After student groups have discussed and voted, or even negotiated, their final choices, students will be eager to hear how and why other questions became top priorities. Sharing could involve think-aloud presentations, group pair-shares, World Café rounds, a jigsaw format, or even a silent write-around protocol. Ultimately the class might vote on a single essential question to guide a curricular unit or individuals could choose from the final list for their own research projects.

Reflection as an Inflection Point

The teacher could insert "notice" notetaking to help students become more aware of the attributes of group process. For example, they could reflect on questions like: How did the group handle differences? Or, What question did you hear that changed what you thought?

Chapter 8 of Make Just One Change discusses the benefits of whole-group, small-group, and individual reflection. For example, it can be used as a vehicle for assessment—a way for the teacher "to gather information related to content, comprehension, skill development, and intellectual growth." The reflection process should be given its due, since this is where new learning is explicitly linked to self-efficacy and student voice, which build what the authors have termed microdemocracy (Rothstein and Santana 156). Given the time and thought you devote to the QFT, exit slips appear to me to be less fruitful than individually written reflections that elicit meta-thinking, especially when they are part of a long-term portfolio that students are able to revisit.

Friction for Librarians

It's not hard to imagine using the QFT as an intervention in the library—either during a research project or a book discussion. Your points of friction remain the same: thoughtful selection of a QFocus, clearly prioritized instructions, and well-crafted reflection questions. In the last analysis, the student outcomes will help you judge QFT's value for your needs.

Library colleagues who have exploited QFT in their teaching or for professional development say that adults' biggest misconception is that QFT is an add-on that "takes too much time." It's the age-old conflict between coverage and depth. As with any new thinking routine, QFT may feel forced at first, but as you internalize the sequence you'll spot new applications opportunistically. Connie Williams, a QFT trainer, encourages librarians to experiment; "Think of it as another thinking routine that can be rolled out in small bits repeatedly over time" (Williams). Just as "Inquiry" is a shared foundation and key commitment of all school librarians (American Association of School Librarians), thinking routines like QFT, K-W-L, Circle of Viewpoints, See-Think-Wonder, and Think-Pair-Share build intellectual muscle, energize instruction and bring voice and choice to student learning. The rich cognitive, affective, and behavioral discoveries you hope students will make are, in part, attributable to these thoughtful instructional choices.

Works Cited (MLA style)

Brickey, Jennifer. "Using the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) to Rebrand School Libraries." Tchers' Voice, Teaching Channel, 12 Apr. 2019, www.teachingchannel.org/tch/blog/using-question-formulation-technique-qft-rebrand-school-libraries.

"Classroom Lesson Plan: Whole-Class Literature Discussion." Annenberg Learner, Annenberg Foundation, www.learner.org/libraries/makingmeaning/makingmeaning/asking/lessonplan.html. Accessed 3 Sept. 2019.

"Document Analysis Worksheets." National Archives, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 18 Dec. 2018, www.archives.gov/education/lessons/worksheets.

Frey, Nancy, et al. Developing Assessment-Capable Visible Learners, Grades K-12: Maximizing Skill, Will, and Thrill. Corwin Literacy, 2018.

Kelley-Mudie, Sara. "QFT in Your Library." Received by the author, 8 Sept. 2019.

"Lesson Planning Workbook." RQI, Right Question Institute, rightquestion.org/resources/lesson-planning-workbook/. Accessed 3 Sept. 2019.

Marzano, Robert J., et al. Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001.

McTighe, Jay, and Grant P. Wiggins. "Chapter 1. What Makes a Question Essential?" Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, Alexandria, ASCD, 2013. ASCD, www.ascd.org/publications/books/109004/chapters/What-Makes-a-Question-Essential%A2.aspx.

"Question-Answer Relationship (QAR)." Reading Rockets, WETA Public Broadcasting, 2019, www.readingrockets.org/strategies/question_answer_relationship.

Ritchhart, Ron, et al. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Rothstein, Dan, and Luz Santana. Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Harvard Education Press, 2011.

Rothstein, Dan, et al. "Making Questions Flow." Educational Leadership, vol. 73, no. 1, Sept. 2015, rightquestion.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/2015-Making-Questions-Flow.pdf.

"Socratic Seminar Stems." Facing History and Ourselves, www.facinghistory.org/sites/default/files/Socratic_Seminar_Stems.pdf. Accessed 3 Sept. 2019.

"Teacher's Guides and Analysis Tool." Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/guides.html. Accessed 6 Sept. 2019.

Williams, Connie Hamner. E-mail interview. 9 Sept. 2019.

For more ideas on thinking routines, please see these other SLC articles:

"How Do I Teach Students to Develop a Thesis?" by Debbie Abilock

"Online with Primary Sources. Getting Started with Primary Source Teaching" by Mary J. Johnson

About the Author

Debbie Abilock, MLS, cofounded and directs the educational vision of NoodleTools, Inc., a full-service teaching platform for academic research. Her column is based on over 60,000 research questions from educators and students that have been answered by NoodleTools' experts. As a former school administrator, curriculum coordinator, and school librarian, Debbie works with district leadership teams and professional organizations on curriculum and instruction. She was founding editor-in-chief of Knowledge Quest (1997-2010), writes for education publications, and has co-authored Growing Schools (Libraries Unlimited) about innovative site-based leadership and professional development led by school librarians.

MLA Citation

Abilock, Debbie. "A Librarian Asks, 'What Is the QFT and How Does It Fit the Library?'." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Display/2232715?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2270649. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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