Saturday, November 13, 2010


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a unique PD session. For two days, a group of middle and high school teachers listened to the Question Structure strategies for student success presented by Michael Hardt. Following the PD I was quite excited to try this out with my students. However, from the outset I had several serious concerns about what was presented.
Hardt’s background is in the US as a designer of standardized tests, and QS is billed as a surefire way to improve scores. He made any number of provocative statements, all with a disarming “aw shucks” demeanor. Nevertheless, I was not convinced.
Here is a sample. In addition to promoting his own ideas, he downplayed a number of educational and pedagogical theories. The reason? No data.
Differentiation is a waste of time. There is no data to support this approach.
There is no such thing as synthesizing or inferencing.
He never reads fiction, it is also a waste of time, because it contains no information; he only reads non-fiction.
There is no data to support the idea of multiple intelligences proposed by Gardner.
Reading for pleasure is a waste of time. It only stimulates the pleasure sensors in the brain and does not lead to learning.

I simply don’t believe any of this. Instead, I believe that somewhere, there is data supporting all of the above approaches. It is also ironic that the semester 2 literacy focus for our whole board is inferencing…
I set out to teach my students the QS approach, and made two SmartNotebook presentations (my first!) to use on my brand new SmartBoard. It was very interactive and contained lots of practice, and went well. But then when I started thinking about how to incorporate QS into my units, it was a big problem.
I discovered that in following the precepts of differentiating, I had virtually eliminated the opportunity for intensive use of QS. With every student reading a different non-fiction book, no chance for teacher-led questioning. In math, an enrichment group is across the hall and the others need individual help, not a Q and A lecture. In history, they are reading small sections of the text independently and summarizing, and then writing a script. My action research of the past 4-5 years had focused primarily on extended reading for pleasure, with brief responses. The boys improved their reading, CASI scores for participating classes were statistically higher, and 100% of my Grade 6s passed the reading portion of EQAO.
I had no idea what to do about QS in a meaningful way in my classes, without changing my whole approach.
Should I go back to more direct instruction? Everyone on the same novel? Eliminate choice in books and projects? This was a very stressful period of time. I felt obligated to implement QS, having spent two days learning about it. But it really went against everything I have tried to do to improve my teaching practice for about 7 years.
I was still on the fence about QS when I had the chance to attend the ECOO 2010 conference. It was like traveling to a different planet, one where creativity flourished and technology was promoted as a tool for student success, engagement and innovation.
As you might have guessed, QS is not going to be a priority for me. I want more for my students than the ability to snap questions and I am not going to throw my differentiated program away and redesign my units to force standardization.
However, I will say that I have re-examined my lack of formal questioning and will definitely be incorporating more into my teaching. The students in one History class really enjoyed the use of SmartNotebook to present the text followed by questions that they could answer as a group, so I will follow up in a similar manner in the future. I suspect that some are coasting during the full group lessons, and will have to devise a way to track them, but all in all, I can see a way to use a more direct approach in History, for some units. As well, during the “minds on” section of math lessons, I see a role for focused questions.
So, although I see QS as a bit of “one-trick pony,” I will take it out of the barn on occasion. But for the long treks, exploring new territory and charting our own pathways to learning, QS will stay parked in the corral.


Jane Henderson said...

I am curious to know how you attended this PD session.
I am appalled that Michael Hardt considers reading fiction a waste of time. Reading fiction is what brings our imagination and creativity to the surface! I am glad that you went to ECOO - I am sure you learned a lot about creativity and imagination.
Good grief!

Anonymous said...

He sounds awfully certain. That is its own danger sign. I certainly would not let him teach my grandkids.

Ross Isenegger said...

Sometimes it is hard to know what is part of Hardt's schtick and what is part of his belief structure. The most interesting things about QS for me are the transferable frameworks to organize thoughts and responses. Wayne Croxall has been involved in research that shows that having students think in particular ways can improve their understanding markedly.

At one session with Hardt, we tried to zoom in and out on the topic of multiplying fractions and found that it was extremely difficult to answer deep questions about "why" we would be teaching that - beyond its appearance on a certain page in the curriculum document or an expectation by teachers in higher grades etc. Generally, the teachers that have been working hardest on QS seem to struggle with implementing a lot of it at the classroom level in a meaningful way - certainly in Math and Science in my limited experience.

Thanks for your reflective piece.

Anne Shillolo said...

Jane, I agree with you. I have also heard the expression “EI” associated with fiction reading… that it builds emotional intelligence by involving readers, even immersing them, in another world and leading us to making connections with people and situations we might otherwise not encounter. To me, if one of the values in studying history is so that, as a race, we can avoid repeating our mistakes, there is a similar kind of learning available through stories.

Anne Shillolo said...

Ross! Hi! Thank you very much for your comment. It was interesting to hear from someone who has had experience with the QS training. The QS instruction was certainly thought-provoking and got me assessing my approach to questioning from a really basic level.

Anonymous said...

QSR is in no way a "one trick pony" - it's a complete paradigm shift. It's complexity makes its adoption daunting, but the research shows that the strategies increase student achievement - I found it very convincing. As for your concern about differentiating instruction, I don't think DI and QSR are mutually exclusive - in fact, I think DI is inherently embedded within QSR. Once you become more aware of the level of difficulty of the questions you're asking, you can differentiate the questions you assign to each student (or groups of students). Just because Hardt doesn't appreciate fiction doesn't mean his research and QSR aren't sound - one has nothing to do with the other.

Anne Shillolo said...

OK Anonymous. I would like to respectfully point out that nothing bad will happen to you if you write your real name :) Please consider joining the active world-wide network of educators who are sharing ideas online on a daily basis. I am glad you have found QS useful, and I will be continuing the training to see if I can get my head around the program and also improve my existing questioning strategies and practices. As for the DI, Hardt stated that it was pointless so I took that to encompass the QS system. Same with fiction. Sometimes it is hard to deconstruct what a speaker says, and... sometimes I wonder why this should be necessary.