With the dawn of year 2 just around the corner, I’ve spent some time this summer thinking about my use of questions.
Last year, my goal for every lesson was to have at least one question that required an explanation or considerable thought to answer. It’s not a bad goal. Other teachers I met and talked with referred to the practice as “essential questioning.” A lot of times a single question changed the dynamic and direction of my class. I plan to continue this practice.
This summer, I’ve been thinking about the other questions I used and failed to use in my instruction. In some instances, the questions were scaffolding in nature. More often than I realized, the wording of my questions implied a single correct answer. I was looking for a particular answer and in effect I was creating confirmation bias. As a typical example, imagine the following exchange for solving a given rate problem:
Student raises hand during partner work time. I walk over and ask how it goes.
Student: I don’t know what to do.
Me: Read me the question aloud, please.
Student: A car on a highway travels 20 miles in 15 minutes. At this rate, how far will it travel in 2 hours? How fast is the car traveling in miles per hour?
Me: What do we know?
Student: The car drives 20 miles in 15 minutes.
Me: What can we use to organize that information?
Student: A ratio table.
Me: Okay, so let’s start there… Where does 2 hours fit in?
From this point, the rest of the conversation becomes a series of scaffolding questions that I will henceforth name Q&A Ping Pong- I ask a simple question about the problem, the student answers, I ask a slightly different question if the answer was not exactly what I was hoping for to confirm understanding, the student answers, and so on until I reach the point where I ask if the student has the idea.
This line of question is helpful at times with specific students, but I think I short-circuited the problem solving process for students when I used Q&A Ping Pong too much. What I hope to accomplish this year (on top of other dreams such as improving my use of discourse and discovery activities) is using hints and questions in a way that keep students in the active state of problem solving. All too often, Q&A Ping Pong and other sorts of questions move students out of the position of problem solvers into the position of problem doers – I ask a question like the ones in the vignette above, a student answers, and if I affirm the answer they do whatever it was they just said. The thinking has stopped and I have become the holder of all knowledge. What I want is for students to experience the struggle and joys of problem solving, which means not always knowing that what you do is correct or if the tactic is the affirmed route of a teacher, other student, etc. The joy of problem solving is knowing that you have knowledge to build upon, intuition/strategies to try, and the thrill of discovering your solution after the period of not knowing.
This year, I want the following questions to occur in my classroom:
What have you tried?
What’s unusual about this problem?
Does this problem remind you of anything you’ve seen before?
What’s something you definitely know cannot be a right answer/process for this problem?
What is your goal for this problem?
If there’s more than one question you need to answer, why do you think both of these questions are asked?
How is this problem different from the other one you just solved?
Are there any details in this problem that “stick out” to you?
How can you check your solution?
All of these questions require careful use and timing. If I find myself asking students to check solutions only when a mistake was made, then students will eventually associate the question with wrong answers. If I ask students for differences between problems only when none exist, eventually the question will become useless in making student analyze problems. Along with these considerations, it’s important to recognize that I am still the person who is asking the questions. The ultimate goal will be students asking themselves and each other these questions. How I will foster that environment and practice remains to be seen. Dylan Kane and Michael Pershan offered a lot of good thoughts this summer about teaching problem solving. As I move forward, I plan to revisit their thoughts for some guidance.