Good Question!

This week’s blog highlights a different kind of Wildwood classroom— one where teachers learn.  On Monday and Tuesday of this week, six Wildwood faculty, and dozens of other teachers from across California and around the country came together at the Elementary campus for a cutting edge two-day training facilitated by the Boston-based Right Question Institute in partnership with Wildwood.

Wildwood K-5 science teacher Christie Carter (standing) facilitates some question-asking in her discussion group at RQI’s Wildwood-hosted training

Wildwood is here for students, but we have a strong belief that we are also here for teachers. Wildwood School is widely recognized in Los Angeles, around the country, and, increasingly, around the world as a hub of educational innovation and best practice. The Wildwood Outreach Center is always on the lookout for partners equipped to help us bring new best practices to Wildwood teachers, as well as others—in both public and other independent schools.  Our partners’ missions always intersect with Wildwood’s philosophy of progressive, student-centered, college prep education.

Wildwood 4th grade teacher Will Schaer (standing) and Division Three science teacher Andrew Lappin practice the QFT with their group

The Right Question Institute with their groundbreaking book published by Harvard Education Press, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, is an ideal Wildwood partner. Their central idea is simple and smart: Instead of only teachers asking the questions that prod students to think and learn, RQI helps teachers learn a structured protocol to help students come up with the questions that will stimulate their own learning.

Authors and education advocates, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, call the protocol the Question Formulation Technique, or QFT for short. The Right Question Institute’s research shows that using the QFT helps students think more critically, write more persuasive essays, deepen mathematical understanding, design better science experiments and conduct independent research and learning projects.

Division Two humanities teacher Lauren Sekula contemplates her group’s questions during a QFT practice session

The QTF can work in any discipline and with kids at every grade level.  It’s a good way to establish new patterns of inquiry and re-direct students who are simply looking for the “right” answer.

Here’s an example.  A science teacher who usually opens a discussion with a question, such as: “How does pollution affect residents of Los Angeles?” can instead generate what is called a Question Focus—usually a statement designed to generate questions and deeper thinking. Here the Question Focus might be, “Pollution affects residents of Los Angeles.”  The teacher then guides the students through the Question Formulation Technique. First, groups of students generate as many questions as they can about the Question Focus, e.g., “What kind of pollution affects LA residents?”, “Does pollution affect people differently in different parts of LA?”, “How are the effects of pollution measured?”  Through this kind of question generation, students are able to take their conversations beyond the superficial answers a teacher-generated question might prompt. Building on this basic technique, the Question Focus encourages students to go deeper.

Alexis Lessans, one of the Wildwood faculty involved in the two-day workshop says, “The QFT fits seamlessly,” into her Division One Humanities classroom, “because our approach is fundamentally student, not teacher, driven.”

Andrew Lappin (left) records his group’s questions

Elementary science teacher Christie Carter and 4th grade teacher Will Schaer, Division Two humanities teacher Lauren Sekula, Division Three science teacher Andrew Lappin, and middle & upper school Head Librarian Michelle Simon also took part in the training. In a field of over 30 educators, many from other independent schools in Los Angeles, these Wildwood teachers stepped into volunteer and leadership roles within their small work groups, sharing their work with Wildwood students and ideas for implementing the QFT in their classrooms.

“Young kids, even our Pod students, are so naturally curious at Wildwood,” Christie Carter tells me. “I can see how my teaching partner [science teacher Anna Boucher] and I will use this training with our students.”

4th grade teacher Will Schaer made his intentions very clear, telling the entire group at the end of the second day, “I’ll be using this tomorrow in my students’ social studies lesson.”

Middle & Upper campus Head Librarian (left) and Division One humanities teacher Alexis Lessans lead their small group in its work

Wildwood teachers are proud to be learners, and training opportunities like this give our faculty a chance to stay students. In sharpening their practice, it’s our students’ learning that ultimately benefits.

For over a decade The Wildwood Outreach Center has trained hundreds of educators locally, nationally, and internationally in the research-based best practices that our teachers employ everyday, like project-based learning, advisory, the Life Skills, and Habits of Mind and Heart. The work is of significance internally and externally, and informs the Wildwood approach at home and in schools we work with.

Throughout the two-day workshop, I had a strong sense that when I asked the Right Question Institute to make Wildwood its first West Coast venue for their training, an important relationship was born.

Good question, good outcome.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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