Better Questions, Better Inquiry

Is your destiny written in your genes?

This is the driving question I am using for the unit on heredity in my biology class. I was unsatisfied with my original question so I beseeched the help of fellow biology teachers on Twitter.

Thank you to whoever it was that came up with this one. I think it’s awesome for several reasons. First of all it is ridiculously open ended. No student can find the answer to this in a five minute Google search. Secondly, as soon as it appeared on the screen, I almost literally saw student faces light up. No seriously – eyes widened, smiles broadened…they were instantly excited and intrigued about what they would explore in this unit. It took me a good minute to get them to be quiet and calm down! And lastly, it inspired them to create their OWN questions that they wanted to answer about heredity.

In what ways can environmental factors impact gene expression? 

To what extent is our morality affected by our genes?

If your genes are related to your personality, how can a person change?

These are just a tiny fraction of the many questions my students generated using a Question Formulation Technique I found on Tait Coles’ inspiring Punk Learning blog. The technique comes from The Right Question Institute and is explained in their book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. The book argues that all students can learn to formulate they own questions and that educators can teach this as a skill. As a science teacher this really resonated with me because the nature of science is about inquiry. Scientists ask questions about the natural world and set out to find the answers through experimentation, observation, etc… Therefore, as science teachers, we should be modeling this process in our classrooms. Too many times I have provided my students with the questions and then a handout with the answers. Then we do a lab activity that just reaffirms everything I have taught them in a predictable manner. I would like to provide my students with more opportunities to create their own questions and find their own answers. And if their questions happen to align with the content we are already going to address then even better!

How does the QFT work? It is broken down into four steps:

Step 1: Produce your questions 

I gave each student a few colored markers and a large piece of yellow paper. As suggested on Tait Coles’ blog I told the students to just write down any question that came into their head – don’t stop to judge. Students wrote and wrote and wrote! The rich discussions and debates that I heard come from just this first step would have been enough to stop the activity right there. I could have gone on for the rest of the period just listening to what they were wondering and arguing about. It was magic. Students engaged in and discussing science. Some students had more questions than others, but everyone came up with stuff. How could you not with that type of driving question to get you started?

QFT1Step 2: Improve your questions

In this step students identify their questions as closed or open and try to make their questions more open ended. I think this was harder for them than I imagined. But with their TOK skills, they were able to do it. Original yes/no questions such as “Do your genes influence your personality?” were improved to ones like those seen above. However, this is something that would need more work in future.


Step 3: Prioritize your questions

I had everyone pick their top three most burning questions. We didn’t have time to discuss WHY they were their most important though. This is something to improve on for next time.


Step 4: What will you do with your questions?

I had them post their top three to wall wisher which I then embedded directly in the MOODLE. Note to those using wall wisher – have students log in to create their posts. If they post anonymously then they cannot move/edit the posts later on. Throughout the unit I will provide students with opportunities to answer their questions. Some of them happen to align well with the curriculum, others go beyond and that’s great. I plan to create Engage and Extend learning opportunities as part of my unit plan based on the student questions. Thus I am making the course even more student centered which is fantastic.


This was one of the best 30 minutes of biology ever! We only had a 40 minute period that day so it worked out really well. Many thanks to Tait Coles and his Punk Learning blog for posting this idea. As he mentions, we ask students a lot of questions – mostly to see if they understand the content. But we need to get them doing more of the asking and help them develop the skills to be effective inquirers.


I also created a display to put on the wall in my room. Feel free to download and use the PDFs provided.

Question Formulation Step1

Question Formulation Steps 2,3,4


6 thoughts on “Better Questions, Better Inquiry

  1. Awesome post, J!
    I’ve been trying to find good techniques to develop questioning skills for the Gr7+8 class in preparation for their science project this year. This could be useful. The trouble is many of them don’t have a strong background knowledge base or language abilities to even know what they should ask about.

    1. Thanks C! I understand how that could be a challenge. I think for that age group and knowledge level, it might be a good idea to start with some kind of engaging material – like a video or news article. Then the questions could stem from there. Maybe have them do it in partners or groups as well so that they feel more confidant. Let me know if you try it!

  2. Kevin Piers

    I loved this post. While I am not as bold as you have been with going student-centered yet, I am going to give it a try in a Homeostasis unit next semester and this might be a great opening exercise. A few of my colleagues from Jakarta International School heard you speak a few weeks ago and they were duly impressed with some of the things you have been doing. They shared your Evolution lesson plan with me and it got me very fired up to try something similar with my Grade 10 Biology class next semester. I loved how you incorporated the learning cycle into your unit plan and I would love to pick your brain about some of your “extend” activities. Thanks for sharing it with them and I hope some day to have a chat about this all.

  3. Pingback: How do we learn? How do we demonstrate our learning? | msagostino

  4. askgoodquestions

    So great to read your description of the small, but significant change from conventional practice of asking questions of students to getting them to ask their own. Could you share Question Focus examples and student questions at There’s a great network there of educators teaching students to ask their own questions. You have a lot to contribute!

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