Math is a very logical subject. For every question given in a math book, worksheet, or from the teacher, there is generally an answer. “What is ten plus ten?” Boom! You all thought of the answer. It makes the subject very nice. In fact, that is one of the reasons I became a math teacher is because I was, and still am, pretty good at explaining how to get the answer. Every math text book is written surrounding questions and answers: they give the questions and it’s my job as an educator to teach students how to get the correct answer.
However, what I’ve come to learn during the first year of my masters program is I have been short changing my students. I suppose I’ve known this. By the end of the school year, I have classes with good but very mathematically needy students. It feels like lean on me for, what feels like, every step of their math problem solving journey. I love math, but having that many needy students is draining. I’ve recognized this is more my fault than anything, but I’ve never really figured out what I can do differently. I mean, they need help, right? Apparently, not the kind of help I’ve been giving them. My big question has been, “How can I create independent learners where I act as a coach?” I think I may have found an answer to my question, and that is to question.
Questions are at the heart of learning: which questions we use, who they come from, and how we use them.
Which questions we use. The questions in a traditional math class often start with WHAT IS,or WHO CAN TELL ME. Instead, what if we were to change those questions to WHY, WHAT IF, and HOW? WHY would get at the root of doing what we do in math. WHAT IF would extend understanding. HOW extends the understanding and asks how it applies to real life. All of these lead to more questions and potentially more learning.
Who questions come from. Questions generally are generated by sources outside the students: curriculum, the teacher, worksheets. What if questions were to come from students? This may seem counter-intuitive to teaching, but why not let students generate as many questions as they can. I’ve talked in other blogs about “notice and wonder.” Allow students to consider a scenario (such as ‘Anna has 10 apples. Juan has 5 apples’) and openly share what they notice about it. Then, allow them to share what they wonder about it (‘how many more apples does Anna have than Juan?,’ ‘Why does Juan have fewer apples than Anna?’). Taking this even further, teachers could set up a framework for these questions by having them start their questions with WHY, WHAT IF, and HOW.
How questions are used. Giving students the chance to ask their own questions is powerful. They are more interested in investigating their own questions. What better intrinsic motivation could a teacher ask for than students wanting to learn? As they work work to discover the answers to their questions, deeper, more profound learning can happen compared to traditional methods.
When the right questions come from the right sources and are used in meaningful ways, students will be empowered with the ability to thrive in life. Best of all for me, they will be independent questioners, explorers, and therefore better problem solvers. For the student individually, life is full of complex problems. Life problems don’t come from a book or a teacher. They lack the structure with a simple answer that math often has. Modeling the steps in class to problem solving grants students to be compfortable with questions and sets them up to solve their own problems. Warren Berger said it beautifully, “it’s necessary to stop doing and stop knowing in order to start asking.” Too often, especially in math, students get caught up with how to do this or that. They are tested on whether or not they know something. By shifting that paradigm to be comfortable with asking, allowing for exploration, and giving them the tools to solve problems in class. That’s going to be a refreshing difference.
Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question. New York, NY: Bloomsbury