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Can a creative technique that works for third-graders help grad students launch their research careers?

In December of 2015 the John Templeton Foundation approved a three-year, $700,000 grant to the Cambridge, Mass.-based Right Question Institute with the ambitious goal of empowering teachers in a million primary and secondary-school classrooms worldwide to teach their students to ask better questions. The institute’s approach, distilled into a streamlined Question Formulation Technique (QFT), guides students through a process of generating questions, prioritizing, and reflecting on what they learned as a means to identify the most important and most interesting questions. The ultimate goal is to engage a student’s curiosity and creativity in developing good questions, a technique that is unfortunately not currently part of standard curriculum. Despite limited formal marketing, the QFT has already been adopted by tens of thousands of teachers, many of whom have become enthusiastic evangelists for the technique.

All of which got Right Question Institute co-directors Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana wondering: can what works well in a primary or secondary classroom be applied to a graduate school seminar? This past August, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the Right Question Institute an additional $300,000 to explore bringing the QFT to university, graduate and postgraduate students.

Groundbreaking research — and the academic careers that depend on it — invariably has as its starting point some kind of well-framed question. According to Rothstein, “Faculty working with doctoral students will tell you that they can look at students’ questions or early career questions and recognize the ones that are good versus the ones that are not. They’ll apply the ‘you’ll know it when you see it’ criteria. What we’re looking at in the NSF grant is, how do you define that?”

Making good questions better

In addition to encouraging researchers to formulate and evaluate questions through an adapted QFT, in the new grant Rothstein and his colleagues will focus on identifying ways to help turn good research questions into even better ones. One cohort of students will be trained to use a specialized Question Improvement Model (QIM), while a control group will initially proceed without the training. Evaluators will then compare the two groups’ performance in generating useful questions before, during, and after the training to see whether the QIM leads to quantifiably better questions.

“The biggest lesson coming out of our experience of the campaign to adopt the QFT in a million classrooms worldwide is the extraordinary ingenuity of teachers when given a tool that they can mold for their purposes to achieve their learning goals,” Rothstein says. Many university teachers and researchers are similarly enthusiastic, not least because they recognize how much their students can struggle to come up with the most fruitful research questions.

Rothstein is sympathetic to why question-generation is such a challenge, even for people at the pinnacle of our education system. “College students have been playing the game of school for a long time — the student’s responsibility is to provide the answers to the teacher’s questions.” So when answers are no longer the focus, it can be bewildering. “All of the sudden you’re supposed to name what you don’t know,” he says.

Questioning Creativity

Rothstein likes to quote the historian David Hackett Fischer, who said that “Questions are the engines of the intellect.” They are also engines of creativity: “There seems to be a recognition that questions are really part of the creative process,” Rothstein says, “but there’s almost this attitude that these questions are going to come up spontaneously and that’s your brilliance, that’s your artistic genius.”

Rothstein disagrees. “Both on curiosity and creativity, many people think that questions are the manifestation, the outcomes of being a curious and creative person. But by working deliberately with questions and formulating questions, you become more curious and more creative in relation to something that you had not been working on previously.”