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Learning Cycle: Asking questions

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

"Pilgrim, there is no road… the road is made by walking." Antonio Machado

This week I’m getting back to my series on “Learning Cycle Tools.” In the first of the series, I explained the idea of the learning cycle, and talked about the importance of using lived experience as a starting point for reflection.

But where to go from there? The learning cycle points us to idea of reflection, and popular educators use a particular word: problematizing. Essentially, problematizing means that we should not simply accept the common assumptions about how the world works, but rather recognize that our understanding is only partial.

“When issues or questions are problematized by teachers who work through critical pedagogy, readily made answers are not available. Students realize that although some questions do have clear-cut answers, many of our deeper questions do not have obvious answers.” ( is a good summary of Paulo Freire’s life and philosophy.)

The popular educators recognized that there is more out there than what any of us currently comprehend. This knowledge can be overwhelming, but the positive interpretation is that it allows for a few things to happen in the learning process:

· We can maintain a humble and open attitude toward what we are learning about

· We are free to ask any question we like about the subject

· We are likely to learn something quite new and unexpected

Asking questions with a humble and open attitude can lead to great learning, but it is not always easy! Particularly when we are exploring an area that is completely new to us, full of uncertainty. I am currently working on a community garden project, and we heard a great quote from an Antonio Machado poem this past weekend about how to move forward in a project that doesn’t come with a handbook: “Caminante, no hay camino… se hace el camino al andar.” (“Pilgrim, there is no road… the road is made by walking.”)

Maybe questions are like binoculars: they can help us hone in and focus on something we want to see better.

This is why some learning tools, particularly the ones offered by popular educators, can be so useful. There is one very specific tool out there that I happen to love for this issue of “problematizing,” or asking questions. It’s call the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), and I have used it with my study abroad students for many years now.

The QFT was created by the Right Question Institute, which has so many resources available for working with and using this great tool. Here I will just provide you with a basic overview, and an example from my own life. You can visit the Right Question Institute for more information.

The idea of the QFT is to help you to think through an area of your life or work that you would like to learn more about, but may not be sure where to start. In my work, I used the QFT with students carrying out internships in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. They would use this tool to formulate questions to guide their learning about cross cultural issues, community development issues, or the topic of their internships (agriculture, women’s issues, microfinance, etc).

I personally like to use the QFT at certain points in my own life, when I feel a little lost or when I want to be more systematic in my thinking. It helps to focus me and gives me some next steps to work on when I’m not sure where to go next.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Identify your question focus (see the above example of my study abroad students)

Step 2: Produce your questions, following the QFT Rules

· Rules: Ask as many questions as you can

· Do not stop to discussion, judge, or answer the questions

· Record your questions exactly as stated

· Change statements into questions

Step 3: Improve your questions

· Categorize questions as closed-ended (answered with yes/no/one word) or open-

ended (require longer explanation)

· Change questions from one type to another

Step 4: Strategize

· Prioritize your questions

· Action plan/next steps

· Share

Step 5: Reflect

Source: The Right Question Institute (RQI). The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) was created by RQI. Visit for more information and free resources.

I happen to have my notebook here that I used with my students when we did this exercise back in February, 2017, when my first son (pictured above, with binoculars) was 6 months old. I wrote 5 topics in my notebook that I wanted to explore: Mothering boys, making gardens, water resources in Costa Rica, agriculture in Costa Rica, and wildlife conservation. I choose to do my QFT on a variation of mothering boys: “Working Mom.” Here it is:

1. "Working Mom"

2. and 3. (made in a table and copied it here)

4. and 5. The questions that I prioritized, and re-worded, are the following, with their accompanying action steps:

Where do expectations for working moms come from?

· Read about the connection to the economic system

· Think about connections to religion

How can I show appreciation to my mother-in-law?

· Ask her and her daughters in order to learn more about how they are feeling, what a

culturally-appropriate understanding is

· Listen more deeply

Is the budget enough to get help at home/for the garden?

· Analyze this next week

· Investigate landscapers – prices, individuals, timeline

6. Reflect (in May, 2021): Looking back now, I can see that I was overwhelmed by all there was to do, without enough time to do it. I can also see that I appreciated my mother-in-law’s help in caring for my son, but was feeling that I could do a better job of showing it. The questions that I didn’t prioritize were important questions, but for some I knew I would figure them out without having to intentionally plan my action steps. Others are ongoing questions that I will continue to explore for my whole life!

Maybe I'll write more later about what I discovered through exploring these questions!

What topic would you like to explore more in your life or work? I encourage you to give the QFT a try. It can be done on any topic (personal, professional, academic, etc.), and you can always try the same topic again later.

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