Make Just One Change by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana

Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana from The Right Question Project have published Make Just One Change, a new book about using their approach in schools. It’s available from Harvard Education Press. Howard Gardner writes, “In reading this powerful work, I was reminded of what Albert Einstein said, when he learned of Jean Piaget’s pioneering questioning of young children: ‘so simple only a genius could have thought of it.”

The Right Question idea is indeed simple and powerful. When teachers, case workers, doctors, police officers, and many other officials make decisions that affect us, we need to ask what decisions are being made and why. If we don’t ask “the right questions,” we can be poorly served or mistreated, whether intentionally or accidentally. I say “we” because I am not always confident that I ask the right questions, and I have benefited personally from the simple training that Dan and Luz offer. But social class is important here. Middle class people learn early how to ask authority figures about their decisions and the reasons for them. Asking effective questions creates accountability and yields better results. Poor and working class people do not know whom or what to ask. (Annette Lareau’s book provides great evidence.) Yet the poorer you are, the more likely you are to interact with public sector employees who hold power over you. Thus asking the right question is a basic democratic act.

Although asking the right questions increases the power of clients (or students), it is not zero-sum: power at the expense of officials or teachers. On the contrary, institutions can work better and public employees’ lives can get easier when the people they serve ask the right questions. Make Just One Change is primarily aimed at teachers and argues that they will be more effective if they teach their students to ask to ask the right questions.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.