What is the most powerful tool for finding out what a student does not know?

A question. Not one from us to them, but rather, questions students themselves ask.

Here’s a curious way to think about whole child education: we should dwell on what 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 a student does 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.

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 finding out what a student does not know with 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…

CONTINUE READING this article on how to find out what a student does not know.


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).

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