In a culture that sometimes puts knowledge before inquiry, question formation is an important and often overlooked skill. Nervousness around authority, social anxiety, pre-existing assumptions, and force of habit can leave many learners, in all areas of life, tongue-tied for inquiry.
Dan Rothstein is Co-Founder and Co-Director of Democracy-Building Programs at the Right Question Institute (RQI), a nonprofit educational organization whose methodology involves teaching people how to ask their own questions, and sharing strategies so that all people can improve their ability to ask their own questions.
We spoke with him about the wide-ranging implications such education can have, and how spirituality fits into the equation.
Next week, on Tuesday, August 17th at 2PM Eastern, we will be speaking with Robyn Fivush, PhD, a Professor of Psychology at Emory University. She is well known for her research on the parent-child narrative and the development of autobiographical memory.
Geoff Mitelman: Welcome to Sacred Science, gleaning wisdom from science and religion. I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses. And sitting here with me in his office is Dan Rothstein, who’s somebody that I’ve known for I known for almost 10 years now, of the Right Question Institute. He’s co-written a book called Make Just One Change, about: how do we have better questions for students, for American citizens, for everybody to be able to engage in? How do we have the right questions to be able to get where we want to be able to go? I used it when I was leading Torah study and working with B’nai Mitzvah kids – I’ll share a little bit about that. And it completely changed the way that we work with kids on writing Bar and Bat Mitzvah Divrei Torah and their sermons.
And now the Right Question Institute has grown tremendously doing work on democracy and self advocacy, and just incredible work here. So Dan, thank you for taking some time to talk with us here this afternoon. I’m delighted, Geoff, it was a thrill years ago when I found out about how you had used the question formulation technique. So it’s very inspiring. So I’d love to start because I think some people may not know, what exactly is the question formulation technique? That’s something that I think, you know, people want to know, how do I ask good questions, and you really distill that for a lot of work into a very simple way to be able to ask great questions for people to explore.
Dan Rothstein: Sure, I think it might be helpful to give a little background on how it evolved, where it came from, and then we can actually go into a quick exercise and use the question-formulation technique.
So about three decades ago, I was working in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. I was the Director of Neighborhood Planning for the City of Lawrence at that time, and had helped the city get a grant from the Annie Casey Foundation on a dropout-prevention program. And I was working with some people from the community who were primarily low-income Latino and white parents in Lawrence. And I was working with people in the community. And we began to hear from our parents. We’re working on trying to involve parents more in their children’s education. We began to hear from parents that they didn’t want to participate. They’re reluctant, they didn’t go to school, because they didn’t know what questions to ask. So we thought, “Okay, we can solve that problem? We can come up with a list of questions, and that would help them overcome the obstacle?”
Well, it turns out that they were on to something very significant that had never really gotten quite the attention it deserved, which was that not knowing what to ask is a huge obstacle to participation, to advocacy, to being able to make your voice heard, to being able to partner with professionals, to being able to participate in decisions that affect you.
So after we heard that one or two thousand times we realized, “Well, maybe there’s something there.” And we realized that we needed to look at how to teach the skill of question formulation, rather than having people be dependent on us to provide them with the questions. And so that was really the key moment, the key insight that came [out of it]. And so the source of all of our work is really from a problem that was named by the parents with whom we are working: people who may not get much respect for the wisdom that they can bring to addressing the challenges that we were addressing at that time.
So we began to work on how to teach the skill of question formulation, and found out that there’s always a lot of talk about questions. And there’s always a lot of reference to the importance of questions. But when do people actually learn to ask questions in a rigorous way? How do they learn to improve their own questions? How do they learn to take their questions and use them strategically? Well, professionals and people who spend a lot of time, whether it be rabbis, or doctors or lawyers, researchers, people who have to spend a lot of time investigating and acquiring, develop the skill over a period of time. They get a certain amount of training and professional school. But then they actually have to practice years of professional experience.
So how do you teach this skill? That really is a very sophisticated thinking skill. So it took us probably about eight years or so to develop the simplest possible model. Wwe originally began with lengthy workshops. And we finally began to distill it down into a very, very simple process that now is being used all around the world, in more than a million classrooms, in every country and every state around this country. So we continue to learn from how people are using the question formulation technique.
So maybe the quickest way to do it is to do a quick little conversation here that turns into a question process, right in action. So, you sent me a question about “Why it is hard to ask questions?” So instead of my talking about that, why don’t we change that into what we call a question focus: focus for questions. And just say, “it’s hard to ask questions.” And we’re going to give ourselves about one minute of what we’ll just ask questions. And we’ll use some rules for asking questions that are part of the question-formulation technique, which are to ask as many questions as you can, to not stop to judge, even positively, discuss or answer any of the questions, to turn any questions, any statements you have into questions, and try to keep track of the questions as best we can in a conversation so we can remember that. So let’s take that question: “Why is it hard to ask questions?” And let’s ask questions about that.
Geoff Mitelman: Sure. So, good. If you are here joining us live, you can type in the chat, I’ll throw a couple in there as well. But some of those would be: “I don’t have the skill set to be able to ask those kinds of questions.”
Dan Rothstein: So one question, would you take that statement and turn it into a question?
Geoff Mitelman: “Why don’t I have the knowledge to be able to ask the right questions?” Another one might be, “why am I scared of authority figures?” I think that’s another one that I might ask. Some might be I, the people will be might be scared of looking stupid, right.
Dan Rothstein: So, turn that into a question.
Geoff Mitelman: Why do I feel like my intelligence rides on these kinds of questions? Why do I look around to see if anybody else is asking a question? One might be why? Why is it that when I get a question, I don’t always get an answer? Why do I feel like my questions end up going out into the void? And think about this, like in democracy. I think another one is: why do we sometimes ask leading questions? We ask a question [where] we’re looking to have a particular answer, because we’re trying to be a lawyer rather than a scientist, and prove our point. So why? And why do we come at these questions with a preconceived notion of where we want the answer to be?
Dan Rothstein: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that’s right. And we can ask fundamental questions about: why it is hard to ask questions? What is hard about asking questions? Could we make it easier to ask questions? You know, for whom? Is it hard to ask questions? Who struggles with asking questions? Why do they struggle? What are obstacles that we put in front of people to ask questions? How do we help people overcome those obstacles? What are the challenges in doing that? When are we taught how to ask questions? When do we learn it? What happens to all the questions we ask as a child?
Geoff Mitelman: Right? And why are kids at some age so interested in the “why” question, more than “how”? How will they ask “Why? Why? Why?”
Dan Rothstein: So there are many different ways you could go with it. So let’s now try to imagine that we wanted to shape our conversation. You asked many questions that went in many different directions. I added some questions to that. What might be three questions that you would like us to think about?
Geoff Mitelman: I think “What is one of the obstacles? What are some of the obstacles to asking good questions?” I think, “Who is hesitant to be able to ask questions?” I think that’s another one. And “Why do we approach questions with a preconceived answer in mind?” Those are the ones that at least for me. I’m assuming that if we were doing this in the classroom, we would be writing these down.
Dan Rothstein: Yeah, and I just took note of them so that we could address them. So before I respond to your questions, let’s just take a moment about what we just did. We used four rules for producing a lot of questions. We then just looked at prioritizing questions – what are three that you really want to focus on now? So before we focus on them, I’d like you to just reflect for a moment on what you learned by using this process now of just asking questions.
Geoff Mitelman: One is that we have a natural filter that says, who has skin? What do I think about this one? Or what do I think about this one and being able to say, nobody is allowed to judge or answer any of those questions. And I remember when I was leading this, when I was working with B’nai Mitzvah students, that created a lot of safety for seventh graders, to be able to know that nobody’s gonna, nobody’s going to roll their eyes, nobody’s going to laugh at them. It allows you to be able to put lots of stuff on the table that you can then later, say, “this is actually where I want to focus.” And then also, I think, wouldn’t – if there are more students, more people in the room, that will generate even more questions, because one person is going to say something, and that’ll build off of someone else as well. So those are at least a few initial thoughts.
Dan Rothstein: Yes. Right. So there’s a lot that happens to your thinking as you’re going through this process. And you’re becoming aware of things you’re hearing, you’re hearing questions that you may not have thought of from other people, makes you think in different ways. So there’s, there’s an awful lot that happens. And we didn’t use one step in the question formulation technique, which is after you produce your questions, we usually have people look at their questions. And think about closed-ended questions that can be answered with a yes or no and open ended that require more explanation. And we have people think about the advantages and disadvantages of both kinds of questions and then try to change from one kind to the other.
Geoff Mitelman: I choose a positive because that’s interesting, because so much of the way education moves right now. And I’m thinking in the Jewish world, that there’s a strong emphasis on lots of open discussion and, and reflection. And closing any questions, I think, get a bad rap. saying, “God, it’s such an interesting question.” And an interesting way to be able to say if it’s yes or no, and you’re saying there are advantages there. So I’d love to hear some of the thoughts as to what is the value of the closed ended questions?
Dan Rothstein: Sure. That’s great. So let’s think about that for a second. It’s different if you were to think if you’re having a conversation, and or you’re participating in a discussion, and you are asking different kinds of questions, what would be the value of a closed ended question that can be answered just with yes or no?
Geoff Mitelman: I think some of that is for people who may be a little bit more hesitant. It doesn’t put them on the spot and thinking about, you know, for, for my kids, it’s much easier for them to just be able to go, Uh, yes or no and not being asked to speak for 30 seconds in front of the class.
Dan Rothstein: Right. Yeah. And, what would be some disadvantages of a closed ended question?
Geoff Mitelman: I think some of those would be that then you need to be able to, to generate that open ended questions. And this happens both in science and in Judaism, that good questions create more questions and more questions and more questions and more questions? And, uh, yes or no, kind of stops the conversation there.
Dan Rothstein: Okay. So what then would be an advantage of an open-ended question?
Geoff Mitelman: I know the opposite of that would be being able to have a more expansive conversation, to be able to offer different opinions. One line that I’ve gotten actually from my mother, that I actually have come to say, which is, “Life is not a multiple-choice question, life is an essay question”. And that the open-ended questions allow different people to be able to have discussions on thinking of questions like theology, for example. So if you asked a question – I guess a question, not infrequently – of “Do you believe in God?” And if that’s a closed-ended question of a yes or no, that actually, that’s not a helpful question for me.
So very often, when I get asked the question of “Do you believe in God?”, right, it’s framed as a yes-or-no question. And then it becomes an argument back and forth. And I, and many other rabbis, will say, “Well, tell me about the God that you don’t believe in.” Or, you know, the question that I like is “When is God?” and that creates much more of an open ended discussion, right? So that’s that my comfort. It’s much more in the open- ended questions than in the closed ended questions. Right.
Dan Rothstein: So let me finish this off with “What are some disadvantages of an open-ended question?”
Geoff Mitelman: Can we do what we call analysis paralysis? A lot of a lot of discussions without people just like, give me an answer. Right. I got thinking about of COVID, as we’re dealing with right now, should I eat food indoors right now? And at some point, you’ve got to just make a yes or no decision on this. So you know, with each decision here? Well, I could do this or I could do that being able to have a closed ended question allows you to at least move forward.
Dan Rothstein: Right. So you’ve gotten at all the different aspects that we have found. And we encourage people to think about the fact that there are both advantages and disadvantages, to closed-ended questions and open ended questions. And you have to remember where our strategy came from. It came from working in low-income communities, where people are facing many obstacles, very often walking into the welfare office, being told their benefits were being cut off for applying for a job training program, being told that they weren’t going to be admitted, or requesting, you know, Section 8 housing vouchers and being denied, or trying to enroll their child in this school and not being able to do that. So, facing many, many obstacles along the way. And the ability to ask questions gave people a chance to make their voices heard, to try to hold decision makers accountable, to try to get explanations and reasons, to try to figure out how to solve the problem, to become a very powerful strategic tool. And try to imagine not having the ability to ask your own questions. So many people with extensive education have experienced that. A lawyer walking into a doctor’s office might be presented with some information and not even know where to begin asking questions. A doctor walking into a lawyer’s office might be presented with information and not even know where to start asking questions. So it is a universal challenge when you move outside of your comfort zone, to be able to do that. So how do you teach this difficult, sophisticated skill to all people and do it in a way that everybody has a chance to be able to ask their own questions?
Part of what we realized was the people who were able to walk into a situation and they incensed asked a closed ended question, can I start getting my benefits? Can I enroll my child in this school? Can I get housing in this development? Is there a way to get this medication paid for? There are different kinds of questions that would be met with a no, then the ability to, to change that into an open ended question was very important, because then they would be able to turn it into “Why can’t I? What can be done? How could I access it?” Now, at the same time, there are times where you could ask an open ended question about, “Well, why are there not any vouchers available now?” And they say, well, “We don’t really have an answer to that.” And so then people could ask a closed ended question saying, “Well, is there a person I can talk to? Who can give me the answer? Is there information about this? Does this meet the standard of what needs to be done?” So the closed-ended question becomes an accountability tool.
Geoff Mitelman: I’m thinking about a lot of work that community organizing, that the reformed Jewish movement has done, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who now leads the Religious Action Center and and when people are trying to do community organizing, what they are trying to be able to do is find shared values and different stakeholders, and then go to the the decision makers and ask them a closed ended question: “will you commit to X, Y or Z” and there’s a clear victory, as opposed to “we’re going to end racism.” Like, that’s not a closure that’s not ever going to stop, but it’s a question of how can we create? Will you agree to these particular pieces that are going to help move the needle forward?
Dan Rothstein: Absolutely. Right. And community organizing in the Saul Alinsky tradition is very often used for those accountability questions, closed-ended accountability questions. And that’s superb. One thing that many community organizers have told us is that it’s really needed, it’s really important, to not just teach this as a way to hold decision-makers accountable. But also, how do you develop the skill of question formulation, so you’re not just limited to these questions and these accountability questions? Because very often, you need problem solving questions. And problem-solving questions are different from accountability. So this is part of what we had been learning at the Right Question Institute, is that there are a wide range of uses. There are so many different ways that you could use the ability to formulate your own questions, that it actually is very limiting, when you say that there’s only one way to use it, or you try to train people only in one way of using the questions. That’s you know, one of the most significant things that we have learned. And we begin to see this, as the question formulation technique is used in healthcare, for patients to be able to partner more effectively with their providers in education, as teachers discover that students learning to ask their own questions totally changes the classroom dynamic. Students get excited about learning, they’re getting engaged, they begin to basically own the learning process ourselves. And, of course, all the work we do on democracy is about question-asking as a democratic skill. You can imagine an authoritarian society without questions. There should not be a democracy without questions. And yet, we do not teach this skill.
Geoff Mitelman: And you bring up a couple of really important points, one of which is the role of being able to know “What I am asking and why?” And I think that’s something that’s a skill, that you’re right, we’re not really trained to be able to do that. That’s not often training involved in the Right Question Institute, and they’re not trained. And that’s something that kids need. It’s definitely teenagers and certainly adults who are able to ask the question to at least get the responses and the answers that we’re looking for. If you don’t ask the right question, you’re never going to get the right answer.
Dan Rothstein: Right, right. So I’ll give you an example from our early work. There was an article about us in a newsletter, back in the days when there were newsletters, okay. And somehow that newsletter got all the way to the Department of Public Health in Hawaii. And Hawaii that time was facing a major crisis, because the sugarcane plantation industry would basically be shutting down. And the jobs were going back over to the Philippines, where 100 years earlier, many of the people from the Philippines had come over to work in the sugarcane plantations in Hawaii. That was a real crisis. And the Department of Public Health learned about our strategy for teaching self-advocacy skills. And they asked us to come and share the strategy.
So it was a long trip. We got there, and arrived on the Big Island of Hawaii in a community that was living in company-owned housing. The company provided their health care, their jobs – their only jobs were with the company. And the sugar cane plantation was about to shut down. So we’re trying to think about, “Well, what can we do? How can we solve this problem? How can we help, we certainly couldn’t solve, how could we help?”
So what we found was that people were focusing on a decision made by a corporate board to shut down the plantation. And is there anything that they could do about that? And there wasn’t, because there was no accountability. The corporate board could decide what they wanted to do. So we began to teach a strategy that included not just asking questions, but being able to focus strategically on decisions, and they identified decisions that were going to be made that they needed to be asking questions about. They needed to be asking questions about how company owned housing is going to be allocated, where people are going to be able to stay in their homes. Then they will ask questions about job training. What kind of job training will be provided? Is there a way to get job training so that we can start our own businesses? Or are we only going to be trained to work in the hotels?
So they began to change the way they participated and shifted from despair and frustration to being very strategic about that, and then figuring out who they needed to ask. And about six months later, we heard that people in the State Legislature in Hawaii said, “Where are all these people coming from asking questions, and holding us accountable?” So that they were able to change the way the decisions were being made about how healthcare was going to be provided, how the housing was going to be allocated, and what kind of job training, they weren’t going to be able to do so.
So the power of being able to ask your own questions comes from a situation where you’re going to need to be nimble in how you use your questions, because you’ll be facing certain obstacles. And if you have only one question, and you want an answer to that one question, but you’re not able to deal with a new obstacle that comes up and you’re going to be dependent on somebody else to come up with a new question for you to ask. And that’s basically the model that we’re trying to change.
Geoff Mitelman: And the level of ownership of their knowledge in their lives. I mean, think that’s really what it comes down to, to that kind of question.
Dan Rothstein: Absolutely. And it’s happening on such a fundamental level. So in in the Bronx and community health centers, we worked with the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Sciences at CCNY, we worked with medical students-to-be and we train them to go into the waiting rooms of community health centers, and basically teach our strategy in 7-10 minutes in the waiting room to patients. And so the patients, they use a patient activation measure a scale to see. And they saw the patients who were at the lowest level of that patient activation, the least likely to participate in their health care, climb the farthest, by learning how to ask their own questions and focus on decisions. And patients said after they went through that to say, “I didn’t realize decisions were being made here. I didn’t know I could ask questions. I didn’t know how to ask questions.”
So basically, what you get there is a microcosm of what’s happening all over the country every single day, as people are walking into different kinds of public and publicly funded services and institutions, needing something from them, but not ready to participate effectively, not ready to partner, not ready to advocate for themselves. So part of what we began to learn from our work is that micro level of democracy is a level that extends upward. And that if people are not asking questions, they’re not participating. They’re not advocating effectively for themselves, they’re not making their voices heard, then other people continue to make decisions for them, about them, or that affect them, without them even necessarily knowing it. So we developed a concept called “micro-democracy” that saw the potential of many frontline services and programs to become places where people can begin to acquire democratic skills – skills for asking questions and participating in decisions.
Geoff Mitelman: And what was interesting is that it’s applicable in so many different domains. And I’m thinking about my own tradition in my own work back when I was a pulpit rabbi. You know, Judaism has had a historic love of questions. There’s the great joke of “why does a Jew answer a question with another question”? Why shouldn’t you answer a question with another question? Right? There’s, there’s and throughout rabbinic literature, there’s the question of ִמן ַעיִן (min ayin), which means “how do we know this?” And the Talmud has all sorts of questions and responses. And the Rabbi asks this question, and one person gives one answer, and then they give another response. And then they go here, and sometimes they’re closed, closed ended questions, and sometimes they’re open ended questions.
And I’m thinking about when I used this. I was ordained as pulpit rabbi in 2007, and I sort of oversee the different Torah on the sermons that seventh graders would give. And seventh graders generally are not that interested in reading a 3,000-year-old text, particularly without translation, and it was hard enough to translate it from Hebrew to English, and very often that the parents were understandably very, very helpful. But the kids themselves didn’t get that engagement – the parents got somewhat engaged. But even the parents were a little bit, you know, “Why should I be looking at this 3000 year old text?” And then, over and over, we’re fine for the first couple years.
And then when we use the question formulation techniques we just went through a few minutes ago, on a question that we use the Torah portion, as an example, and read your 10 – 12 verses as “Here’s a way to be able to think about how to give a Divrei Torah.” And we also told the parents that the kids had to go first. And there was a level of pride that the kids had in their questions. There was a little level of pride that the parents had, because, “Whoa, I didn’t know my kids were so smart.” Right? These are great questions. And that also allowed the kids to be able to, to engage in the text in a different kind of way. And then we gave them they would settle on a question. And then they realized that they were asking the same questions that the rabbis had been asking about for a couple thousand years. And so they were able to look at these 3000 years of tradition of what the Torah has to say, what the commentators have to say – what’s their own perspective? And it completely changed the way that the Divrei Torah happened, and the sermons of these seventh and eighth graders gave.
Dan Rothstein: Yeah, yeah, that captures it perfectly. That sense of ownership is so significant. We’ve heard this so many times from students, that when you ask the question, you feel like it’s your job to get the answer. That’s a sense of ownership, then there’s the sense of curiosity that emerges – it’s that when you ask a question, it stimulates your thinking in new ways, which is just absolutely remarkable to see over and over again. You know, we’ve had students who would say, “Just when you think you’ve asked all the questions you need to ask, we asked one more, and you realize how much more there is to learn.”
Geoff Mitelman: Well, and what’s interesting and challenging, I’m thinking of this, both in public schools, where there is so much content that needs to be communicated, and in religious education, Jewish education, but I’m also sure in other religious education – to have a certain level of content. But I need the kids to learn these prayers, they need to learn these texts, they need to learn these ways of Jewish ritual, or they need to learn these dates and these math concepts in these English stories and how to be able to read. And it feels like there’s a tremendous amount of pressure, understandably, from the educators, but we’ve got to get the content, we’ve got to get the content, we’ve got to get the content. And the question-formulation technique thus is a wonderful way to be able to engage in the content and get the kids just generally excited intellectually about whatever topic that they’re looking at right then.
Dan Rothstein: Absolutely. So an example of that – or take the Passover Seder. So the Passover Seder – is somebody supposed to be all about questions? And then you have this strange situation – we have four questions that get a lot of attention. And are those the most meaningful questions that could be asked about the Passover Seder? They play a certain role, but the idea is to encourage more questions. Well, how do you do that? And how do you ensure that all people can participate? All people can add their questions from where they are, at what point?
So we’ve done experiments in our home with creating a question focus for the Passover seder. So with my older daughter Ariela, who is a high school teacher in New York City – at one point, she was teaching about the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th century. And we were preparing for the Seder. And so we were thinking of working with her on, you know, an idea for a question focus. And so we came to this idea of a simple question focus to stimulate questions. The question focus was, “We were slaves. Now we are free.”
Geoff Mitelman: And that can generate just a huge number of questions. I think this is a wonderful idea of thinking of, from a Passover seder, of being able to at least look at some of the key questions of what is Pesach trying to teach, what’s the Seder trying to teach, and generating more questions and, again, creating a level of engagement. And what’s wonderful – as with so many different pieces of content, pieces of knowledge – it can change one year to the next, right. You can have the Siddur., and you can come back to this same question five years later, and you look at it differently. So we looked at the Torah, the same text, over and over again. So people can find different entry points of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. I think as we’re recording this in August, about a month before the High Holidays, this is a fantastic way to be able to engage in questions on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana: of repentance, of atonement, of fresh starts. Yeah, there are all sorts of ways to be able to use this to think about leading into the High Holy Days.
Dan Rothstein: That’s right. Well, and it’s so interesting, because that’s also the book that I’ve told you about by Professor Martha Minow at Harvard Law School. When Should the Law Forgive? So it’s a book that’s asking a question from the outset. And it raises those issues that definitely connect to the themes that you were just talking about. So posing the question opens up a new way to think and to learn. Richard Feinman, the Nobel Laureate physicist who was such a great thinker and writer, said, there is no learning without the posing of a question. There’s this understanding of just how important questions are. But the general pattern – and this in some ways, even comes from Socrates, is that the wisest person in the room is the one asking questions of the less wise. The most knowledgeable person in the room is asking questions of the less knowledgeable.
So part of what we’re trying to do in the work at the Right Question Institute is to democratize this access to the skill of question formulation. Because if you think about it very often, it is the person with more power who’s asking questions of the person with less power. And so this is a dynamic that we are trying to change with the ability to ask questions, and we often hear that it levels the playing field, that now people have a way to actually participate and ask, without having to know, the burden is not on you to know everything. The opportunity is for you to be able to ask about what you want to know.
Geoff Mitelman: I think it’d Daniel Willingham wrote a book called Why Don’t Kids Like School, and one of the things is that you do need to have is a level of content knowledge to be able to ask questions about it. If you don’t know anything about it, you’re not going to be curious about it. But being able to have an entry point of being able to say “These are things I want to learn more about.” And so a lot of that is also relational. That’s why we were talking beforehand about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who one of his great lines was that “more than textbooks, we need more text people.” But text people also need to have a level of knowledge. And to be able to say – and the teacher might come to say, “I don’t know” – that it’s actually all right, to be able to not know something. And where can I find out that the answers are the responses to that?
Dan Rothstein: Our experience challenges a little bit of what Willingham says, because what we have seen in many classrooms is teachers find that the question formulation technique, the process of formulating questions about or about a question focus that’s presented to them. Remember, the teacher designs the question focus in relation to what they want the students to be thinking about, which is related to what needs to be taught and learned. So if you think about the example of what my daughter Arielle and I came up with for the Passover Seder, the question focus is related to the content of the saving. So somebody could come in without any knowledge at all about Passover or about to say there or about anything, but presented with the question focus of “We were slaves. Now we are free,” allowing them to become curious without prior knowledge. And what we have seen is that the process of asking questions about something that you were not curious about 10 minutes ago, that you were not in the slightest interested in, that you knew nothing about 10 minutes ago, sparks a new curiosity.
Geoff Mitelman: So this is part of what we have seen with the question formulation technique, then that, actually, in some ways, expands the way we can think about “How do you promote curiosity?” And we were actually aligned, we’ve quoted a few times here, which is that when you don’t know something, “get curious, not furious,” and that’s been a huge challenge in our American democracy. Because we are so ideologically polarized and calcified that I, you know, it’s a way to be able to tackle some of these big, polarizing questions and think that there’s not going to be someone, you know, to judge these questions here. I mean, if you found that it’s been able to bring people together, who would, at best, disagree, and worse, you’ll be at each other’s throats?
Dan Rothstein: Well, it’s interesting, I think that our work has focused on bringing people in who are not participating, who don’t see either a role for themselves, or that they are capable of making their voices heard, and less about bringing opposing views together. There are organizations that work on that. And that’s obviously important work to do. Our focus has been on the people who are not participating, and in some ways are suffering because people are making decisions without their interest or without me. So last year, we did – we’re a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. And we did a voter education program, where we created something called the Why Vote Tool. And the Why Vote Tool was designed in a way for people to see a range of different services or programs that are publicly funded, that are important to them. And we asked him to look at those things in terms of schools, health care, social services, housing, things like food stamps, things that are really fundamentally important, and people need access to when in need. And we asked them to prioritize – choose the three that are most important to you. So this act of prioritization is very often something that people don’t have the privilege of doing, because when you are facing challenges: there’s no food in the house, there’s no money for transportation, you’re a threat of being evicted, which is now a huge crisis in this country, you don’t necessarily have the privilege of saying “I’m going to choose my three priorities for the day.” And I think that it makes being strategic very difficult.
So by designing this in a way that people could look at it and be able to say, “I am going to prioritize, I am going to name these three, and here’s why,” it gives them a new sense of agency that they hadn’t before they could look at and say. Now, the next step in the Why Vote Tool was for people to learn one piece of information, which is that elected officials make decisions about all of these services. At that point, all of a sudden, what elected officials did became very relevant to them. So at this point, the Why Vote Tool would go to: knowing this, why would you want to vote? So now people have seen the big picture. They’ve prioritized. They’ve learned that elected officials make decisions that affect them, they now have reasons to vote, and they now are more motivated to vote. So we had people using the Why Vote tool in Denver, Colorado, when people were waiting outside in line to go into a food bank. We used it with people in Atlanta, as people were trying to think about whether they should vote or not, people used it. When there was a high school teacher who used it in Los Angeles, his students, who primarily came from the Mexican American community, went back into the community and became voting facilitators using the Why Vote tool to engage people in conversations about voting. And the tool ended with: “What questions do you have about voting?” which is going to become an even more significant question to be able to ask, because there are many more obstacles being put in the way of people being able to vote. So the application of the right questions to its work carries over into many fields, with a primary focus on making it possible for people who are not having a say, whose voices are not heard, to be able to participate.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I think that’s such an important point. Because for those who are not involved in politics, they’re able to do that often from a point of privilege, and then decisions are made for them. And there are more and more obstacles are being placed about their lives that they may not be able to advocate for. And one thing I remember from community organizing training is that decision makers don’t always make the decisions because it’s the right decision. They make that decision because it’s in their best interest and there’s enough public pressure. And that and being able to have those skills and tools of understanding that this is, this is an advocacy tool. And I think that’s – there’s people can understand a link of a through line of the role of questioning, in advocacy and in democracy, I think in Judaism, and in more liberal branches of religion. And certainly in science of how you that’s I mean, that we haven’t even touched on some of the questions of science of the way in which we raise a question and it creates a whole new range of of questions to be able to ask as well. And I think that’s why science and democracy go hand in hand. Well, what are we trying to ask? What are we trying to do? Who are the decide who are the decision makers? That’s that’s a questioning is is fundamental to science.
Dan Rothstein: Right? And as we mentioned, my friend, Stuart Firestein, who wrote these two brilliant books, Ignorance: How It Drives Science and Failure: Why Science Is So Successful captures that so clearly. That is basically [what] his argument was about, about failing, getting something you know, how failing at an experiment or research basically presented you with a problem that you then had to ask new questions about. So we like to say – and the National Science Foundation actually has recently come to us, and asked us to work with doctoral students on how to ask better and more transformative research questions. And so this strategy that we learned from the inside of our parents in Lawrence, Massachusetts, is now being taught to doctoral students in order to ask better research questions. And part of what we like to say is that “Rather than spending two years in the lab, and after two years failing at the experiment, and realizing that you didn’t ask the right question, how about putting more time upfront,” front-loading the work on questions, using the question formulation techniques, because there’s a rigor built into the process, because you basically are doing divergent thinking. When you’re producing a lot of questions, you begin to do convergent thinking, when you change the questions from open to closed. And when you prioritize, and you’re doing metacognitive thinking, when you’re thinking about “What did you learn? And how did you learn it?”
So, there’s three very sophisticated thinking abilities baked into the question formulation technique. So this is part of what’s really exciting about the National Science Foundation work now. And we’re actually having an event that’s already fully booked. There’s a kind of registration that was closed already, but we’ll have another one. So you will be able to let people know. But it’s basically about button tapping the power of questions. And it’s basically about the role of questions in higher education, and in research will be and that’s the National Science Foundation event that we’re that we’re organizing now.
Geoff Mitelman: What’s so incredible is that, you know, this is a very simple formulation technique. And we spent 15 minutes doing this, and it’s been used everywhere, from elementary schools, to doctoral students, to advocacy, to working with low-income [people], housing, you name it. This is a human skill that needs to be taught better.
Dan Rothstein: Right, right. And this thing that we’re working on is – it’s in the air, it’s in the vernacular, it’s kind of always being mentioned. But this kind of deliberate, rigorous work with one’s own questions is not really being deliberately taught. And so we are in the process of coming up with what we call a “question formulation theory of learning” on how question formulation actually makes learning possible. And so what we’re trying to do is to get people to see question formulation as not just one of 10 different things that you could be doing, but it’s a foundational skill for learning. And – when you get to the questions that lead you to new and new territories, it becomes a transformative skill.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, that’s why the work that you’re doing, the work of the Right Question Institute, is so crucial. So thank you for not just your time, but for really helping advance education and democracy as a whole.
Dan Rothstein: Well, thank you. Thank you so much, Geoff, for giving me this opportunity. My co-director and one of the co founders, Liz Santana, who wrote the books with me – she and I have been working at this for a long time, and we now have the opportunity, because the organization has grown and there’s an Executive Director now, and we’re able to focus on the the more of the argument about what we’re doing. Is this work we’re doing now, we hope to be sharing that soon. And we really are appreciative of the opportunity you’ve given me, to talk with you about this.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, of course, and if people want to find you on Twitter, they can find you at @rothsteindan, and then the Twitter handle for the Right Question Institute, is that right? They can also find it online and sign up for resources and questions and training and just wonderful opportunities to be able to learn how we can ask better questions, and how we use those kinds of questions, to better who we are as individuals in our community and our world as a whole.
Dan Rothstein: That’s a beautiful statement. That’s exactly right. How do we learn to ask those questions for those purposes… and to get where we need to go?
Geoff Mitelman: And we thank all of you for joining us here this afternoon. You can find me on Twitter, I’m at @RabbiMitelman or at @Sinaisynapses. We’re also on Facebook and on our website. And each week we have a conversation at 2pm Eastern on Tuesdays. Our next guest, our next interviewee, is going to be Dr. Robyn Fivush, who is a professor of neuroscience and memory and narrative: how and why do we tell stories in a particular kind of way? And how does our memory change over time, we’ll be talking with her and then we’re going to have a little break until the High Holy Days. So we hope you’ll join us for our last session of this 5781 year, and we hope that you will join us again soon. So thank you all for taking some time with us this afternoon.