A Pathway out of Poverty for Students in Low-Income Communities: Learning to Ask Questions 

by Luz Santana

Luz Santana is the co-director of the Right Question Institute (RQI) and the co-author of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.

I know poverty. I’ve been on welfare. I’ve worked on the factory floor. I’ve been laid off. And I’ve had some breaks: I got encouragement from a great caseworker at the welfare office and wound up getting a good education, including an Associate’s Degree, a BA, and an MA.

I’m not poor now, but through the years I have continued to learn from people in low-income communities who have a lot to teach us all about fighting poverty. In fact, I learned a lesson that is relevant to addressing the effects of poverty in classrooms all over the country. That lesson came from parents in the low-income community of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

I was working on a drop-out prevention program sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We were trying to recruit parents to participate more actively in their children’s education. The parents told us that they would not participate, would not even go to their children’s schools, because they “didn’t know what to ask.” We thought we could solve this problem by giving parents a list of questions to bring with them to the schools. Our response, of course, only reinforced their dependency on us. We needed to figure out how to teach people to ask their own questions.

Several of the people working on the drop-out prevention program joined with me to form the Right Question Institute. We started figuring out how to teach the skill of question formulation to people with limited literacy or education. We soon learned that the ability to ask one’s own questions is a foundational skill, essential for thinking, learning, and taking effective action.

Parents with whom we worked began to use this skill to get more involved in their children’s education. Teachers reported that they had never had such productive conversations with parents as they had with those parents who had come in with their own questions, ready to talk.

The parents quickly took the new skill they had learned to other places: to the doctor’s office, the emergency room, the job training center, or the welfare office. They demonstrated that learning to ask one’s own questions created greater self-confidence, effective advocacy, and more productive partnerships.

It took us years of trial and error, but we finally figured out a simple, easy-to-teach, and easy-to-learn process for building the skill of asking questions in all people.

We began to share the process with K–12 teachers, who started to use it in their classrooms. Teachers at private schools from New York to California began using the process in their classrooms. University instructors at private and public institutions began to use it with their college students. Graduate students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and other professional schools talked about the value of learning a simple way to ask better questions.

Teachers liked the simplicity of the process. It allowed them to easily adopt it and weave it into their lesson plans. These are the core steps of the process:

The teacher presents a focus, or Question Focus, related to the content they are teaching for student questions. Students then:

  • produce questions (using a set of four rules to structure the process)
  • identify closed- and open-ended questions, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each, and then change questions from one type to the other
  • prioritize their questions
  • identify next steps on how they will use their questions
  • reflect on what they have learned through the process of “just” asking questions.

Question Formulation in High-Poverty Schools

The process that was inspired by low-income parents with limited education was now being taught to students at elite institutions. But what happens when you teach the same process to students in high-poverty schools? Would students with limited reading and writing skills be able to use the same process and learn just as much from it?

Teachers in low-income communities shared with us that their students were not accustomed to being challenged to think for themselves. They expected their teachers to give them information and direct their tasks. When introduced to the process, they often needed some time to adjust to such an active learning strategy.

Ling-Se Peet, a Boston Public School teacher, deliberately taught the skill of question formulation to her students in a summer remedial program aimed at helping ninth graders who were at risk of being held back. The class was taking on difficult subjects, reading Michael McDonald’s painful and powerful account of growing up in South Boston at a time when its residents fiercely opposed Boston’s efforts to desegregate the schools. Ms. Peet’s students, who were primarily African American and Latino, struggled with the process of asking questions at the beginning of the five-week program. But she stuck with it, believing that they could indeed become better and deeper thinkers by asking their own questions.

Soon, she saw students sitting up straight in their seats, excited by the process and interested in the questions their classmates were asking.

One of the students wrote in his evaluation of the whole program that as a result of learning how to ask questions, he now “feels smart.” His classmates, both male and female, echoed his comment. Ms. Peet noted that the process for students working together to ask their own questions was “the most effective strategy for engaging African American and Latino male students” that she had seen.

At the end of the program, Ms. Peet asked her students to name the most important thing they had learned the whole summer. Eighty-seven percent of the students said it was learning how to ask their own questions.

A teacher in a high-poverty school in Texas had a similar experience. A coach for the Gates Literacy Initiative began teaching the same process to a group of teachers at a middle school where 99 percent of the students were on free or subsidized lunch and all came from first- or second-generation immigrant families. One science teacher was sure it wouldn’t work with his students. He revised his lesson plan for the afternoon, and used the process “to show that it can’t work.” He then came back to the instructional coach and said, “I’m embarrassed to say that I underestimated our kids. I didn’t believe they could do this kind of thinking. I see now just what they are capable of doing with the right tools.”

Teachers across the country report that students who learn to ask their own questions consistently are more engaged, take greater ownership of their learning, and learn more.

The Skill of Question Formulation and the Road Away from Poverty

There is no one easy pathway out of poverty. Being able to ask your own questions certainly won’t guarantee anything. But I’ve seen that not being able to ask questions ensures dependency, both inside and outside of the classroom.

We must learn from the great educational insight of the parents in Lawrence. All people need the opportunity to learn to ask their own questions. If we do not deliberately teach this skill to students in low-income communities, we are making it more difficult for them to find a way out of poverty.

The ability to ask questions is essential for academic achievement. If we believe there is a connection between academic success and ending poverty then we should invest in the potential of all students to learn to ask their own questions and to think for themselves.

I know what it’s like when people don’t believe in your ability to think for yourself. I also know what it’s like when people do believe in you. It makes a difference.

About the Author

Luz Santana is the co-director of the Right Question Institute (RQI) and the co-author of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. She has served as a parent advocate in Lawrence, MA, and as an adjunct faculty member at the Springfield College – Boston Campus. She received a B.A. and Master’s Degree from the Springfield College School of Human Services.