To question, how to question, that is the question…or something

Yesterday I read a post called Questions and more questions! on the blog in stillness the dancing. [UPDATE – Beth Ferguson (@algebrasfriend) updated and revised this post in 2016. You can check out the updated version here.]

After reading the post, I ended up writing a comment with the thoughts that came to my mind about questioning. After I posted it, I thought about how I had read a lot of great blog posts throughout the day, and I comment on a lot of them! I really enjoy thinking about what people have to say and sharing my thoughts in return. What I realized is that one of the primary purposes of this blog I just created is for personal reflection and a place to store my thoughts. So, going forward, I’m going to start copy and posting some of those thoughts here so I capture them rather than cast them about the blogosphere like seeds in the wind. Of course, I’m honored if any of my thoughts are the seed of a conversation elsewhere, but I don’t want to ignore my little garden patch of ideas here on my blog.

So, without further ado, and to extract myself from the gardening metaphor I stumbled into, here’s what I want to remember I said after reading the post on questioning. (And since I’m taking the time to collect it here, I’m going to organize and revise it a bit based on thoughts I had since I initially wrote the comment.)

A few tips I can give from my experiences with questioning:

1. Give away the answer. Sometimes I present a problem, and almost immediately give away the answer. That way when we’re talking about the process for finding the answer, the students aren’t hung up wondering whether they’re correct or not. Also it demonstrates that I care about more than getting the right answer. How we get the answer, especially if there is more than one solution path, means a great deal to me, and I want it to mean a great deal to my students.

2. Do your students understand the question? This may only apply to younger students, or perhaps students where English isn’t their first language, but I was surprised to find out how difficult it was for students to grasp “missing information” questions. For example, “Tom has $30. He buys some candies that cost $4 per pack. What information is needed in order to determine how much Tom spent?” It amazed me that until we had talked explicitly about this question type several times, my students (4th graders) completely ignored the part asking about missing information. They jumped right to the question, or at least what they saw as the question – How much did Tom spend? They couldn’t grasp that this question was impossible to solve without more information. It goes to show how much understanding language is wrapped up in understanding math.

3. Let students write the questions. I like providing students situations with lots of information and asking students to pose the questions we might solve based on this information. For example, I read a blog today where someone posted a worksheet showing the writer’s times on various legs of a triathlon. She also included her friend’s times on the same triathlon. The question she posed was whether she and her friend finished at the same time. I like the question, but after looking at the data, I couldn’t help but think of all the other questions you could ask using that same data. Students have to make all sorts of connections to their prior knowledge to look at a set of data and think of questions to ask. Of course they’ll likely start with very obvious questions, but with practice they can get very creative!

4. Ask, “Are you sure?” even if they’re right! Students are pretty smart. They realize that adults often ask this question to indicate that the student has made a mistake. Teachers should be asking this question regardless of whether the answer is correct or not. If you want a student to be confident in their answer, and more importantly if they want to be confident in their answers, this is a question they should hear repeatedly and learn to ask themselves.

5. Be a traffic cop. When you ask a question and a student answers, you can stop all momentum by saying, “Correct,” and moving on. But imagine if you say instead, “Oh, Zaida thinks the answer is 24. John, do you agree or disagree with this answer?” followed by, “Oh, John says he agrees with the answer of 24. Mary, why do you think both students are saying the answer is 24?” The student answers pass through you but you immediately pass direct them in the form of a new question to another student in the class. You don’t have to do this if the question is simple. If I’m teaching 5th graders and for some reason I ask the sum of 12 + 12, then I’m not going to engage in a lengthy discussion, but if the students are evaluating a situation using concepts we’re currently working on, then you better believe we’re going to talk it out, and they’re not going to think the answer is correct because I told them so, but because we built consensus as a class.

So those are my thoughts on questioning that I wanted to capture. I love getting involved in conversations with students and questioning them to learn more about their thinking and how they approached a problem. It fascinates me what goes in the brains of kids. They can be surprisingly clever and sophisticated; we just have to give them opportunities to show us how cool their thinking is.

3 thoughts on “To question, how to question, that is the question…or something

  1. instillnessthedancing

    Thanks for referencing my blog! I look forward to listening in on your reflections in the coming weeks!

    I so agree with your “Are you sure?” suggestion. In fact a ninth grader commented just yesterday that I was going to question their answers even when they were correct. Yep! I am! Is this your final answer? Any why!?

  2. martinka5th

    I also agree with “Are you sure?”. I like to see my students be confident in their answer choices. Sometimes I may even lead them of track a little to see if they bring me back in. I would love to say I do this on purpose all he time, but there are times when they’re correcting me when I get the answer wrong.


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