Teaching Now: QFT with a Primary Source

Student maps

First draft vs final drafts

This is a guest post from Alyssa Park, a fourth-grade teacher at Scarselli Elementary School in Nevada.

My main goals as a teacher are to make sure students leave my classroom bursting with curiosity and with greater self-confidence as learners. I also want them to know how to ask the right questions, how to decide on an action plan to get the information they need, and how to reflect on the work they’ve done. In my second year as a teacher, I learned about the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). It is the most powerful strategy I use to get students invested in content.

My cartography unit has gone through several iterations since I first started teaching it five years ago. Every year I have used a different rubric, ranging from an extremely detailed one with four levels of achievement for six different categories to a single-point rubric that students and I create together. The structure of the unit has gone from rigid (everyone doing the same task at the same time) to a little more flexible (students could move ahead through the same work that everyone would do at their own pace). While students have always loved creating their own maps of Nevada, it has always felt like the bulk of the excitement and the interest in the work leading up to the actual mapmaking has been my responsibility to generate and maintain. Sure, kids would get excited, but the excitement started with me. It needs to start with them. Enter the QFT!

The cartography unit focuses on a disciplinary skill—Generate compelling questions to explore the history of Nevada—and a content standard—Create maps that include human and physical features and that demonstrate spatial patterns in Nevada. Another goal was to integrate informational reading, research, and writing skills into the unit. Ultimately, students would create their own maps of Nevada and write an explanatory piece on the process of mapmaking.

We began the unit with a QFT using Map of the State of Nevada, a primary source from the Library of Congress, as the QFocus prompt. Because the image from the Library has such a high resolution, you’re able to zoom in pretty far and see lots of detail. I used Prezi to create an “interactive” QFocus prompt for students, with different zoom-ins for them to focus on in addition to looking at the full image. I selected the section of the image where the map title and publisher are located, the legend, and Douglas County, where we are located, to help students orient themselves in the full image of the map. They could manipulate the Prezi between the full image and the zoom-ins as they saw fit.


Students worked in groups of four on collaborative Google Jamboards to record their questions, asking as many questions as they could. This is always an immediate insight into the background knowledge students are bringing into a unit of study; you can tell how much a student knows about a topic by where they are focusing their questions or how their questions are phrased.

QFT: Asking Questions

After generating their questions, students first classified their questions as open or closed, then classified their questions again into thematic groups. I wanted them to start thinking about the big ideas their questions were addressing. Categories students came up with included places, color/shape, maps, and places you DON’T see.

Using a primary source as the QFocus invites students to interact with history directly. It bridges the present with the past, and can give students a new perspective through which they can examine a topic. What was particularly interesting about this map was that it was created before the southern tip of modern-day Nevada, north of the Colorado River where Las Vegas is located, was transferred to Nevada. This section of the state used to be part of the Arizona Territory. One student asked, “Why is Nevada stumped?” This is something that I doubt my students would have wondered about if they hadn’t seen it in the primary source!

The next step of the QFT is to prioritize questions. This is a teacher-directed step. Students were told, “You will be making your own map of Nevada! Choose the three questions that will best help you do research to create your own map of our state.” Each student provided a justification for their question choices as a way of explaining how the questions would help them in their work. Then, students had ten minutes to make a quick map of Nevada, including all the things they thought should be on a map of our state. Some students could successfully draw the shape of Nevada, but had no idea of where specific human or physical features would appear, some included the name of any city or country they had heard before, and a few students included real places and placed them accurately on their map.

Prioritizing Questions

We unpacked the content standard—Create maps that include human and physical features and that demonstrate spatial patterns in Nevada—together. Students asked questions again about the language of the standard, pulling out the vocabulary words. We approached unpacking the standard into three levels of learning targets by thinking of the task, purpose, and audience of a map, considering the same things as we do in writing. This process allowed students to name the work that would show mastery of the standard (level 3), developing (level 2), and emerging (level 1). I’ve always felt that I really needed to just tell students what the different levels would look like, but as a class they generated targets that match what I would have told them in the past. Students then self-evaluated their first map according to these learning targets and reflected on specific targets they wanted to meet as they worked to answer their questions during our studies.

Unpacking the Content Standard

Based on their questions from the QFT and the first drafts of their maps, I created a learning plan with activities for them to learn about map features and to access resources to help them answer their priority questions about those map features and their Nevada-specific questions. I included pre-created student-paced activities from Nearpod, book collections about maps and Nevada I created on Epic, a digital reading platform, excerpts from our social studies textbook, and a collection of physical and digital maps.

Learning Plan

Students made a plan about the activities they wanted to complete based on their self-evaluation and their questions from the QFT. This research phase of the unit is where I have historically struggled with making sure students are doing the work they need without feeling like a micromanager. However, because they had individual guiding questions from the QFT and the learning targets of the unpacked standards, students were invested in finding the answers they needed without me directing every step of the work. The intrinsic motivation resulting from students wanting to learn the answers to their questions was the key to students managing their learning. They were responsible for answering their three priority questions by the end of the unit, using the resources available to them. If students couldn’t answer one of their questions, they were prompted to describe what they would need to do in order to answer the question.

Students then created a second draft of a map of Nevada, using their new learning to guide their work. We did a gallery walk through everyone’s second-draft maps, giving specific feedback based on the learning targets. Students used that feedback to make revisions to their work in order to create their final drafts.

Our next step, to wrap up the unit, was to write an explanatory piece on how to make a map. I told the students that the Library of Congress and the National Museum of American History are creating an interactive exhibit for visitors to learn how to make a map, and that they are asking experienced mapmakers to help write the exhibit text. The class brainstormed big ideas they had learned from the work they did in order to create their maps and answer their questions, then narrowed the list down to the top three categories of essential information: research, map features, and human and physical features.

Writing Project Ideas

The benefits of beginning an inquiry unit with a QFT are immeasurable! Students have a chance to bring in their background knowledge but the structure of the QFT, where rules include, “Ask as many questions as you can,” and “Don’t stop to evaluate or discuss any questions,” levels the playing field for students. All students can ask questions, and they can learn how to identify the questions that will be most useful for them in the context of finding the answers they need. Students who are new to a concept don’t feel inadequate because they don’t know as much as other students, and often ask questions that you wouldn’t have thought of before. This sparks new questions for other students, and the list of questions grows and grows in different directions.

The excitement in the room when we use the QFT is off the charts. My students love asking questions, and a well-designed QFocus prompt and prioritization directions ensures that they’ll ask questions that will help them learn what they need.

Nevada map QFT lesson plan

Alyssa’s Twitter thread showing student work from this lesson

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