I found a video recently that was taken of me when I was a senior in college preparing for my internship. Some of my current habits were already in place. I was fidgety and tossed the expo marker around while walking and talking. I still do that – only now with chalk. It’s as if time is moving backwards. The main habit I noticed was that I reflexively asked quite a few questions. Back then they were not very well formed ones, but I already was showing signs of resisting the idea that my job was to tell my students. I imagined myself as some sort of disciple of Socrates as presented by Plato in his dialogues – especially the Meno. I, of course, was not then (nor am I now) as clever as Socrates in my questioning, but I am pretty committed to it. When I was a doc student in the recent past my dissertation topic concerned math teachers’ questioning habits in the classroom. I videotaped one of my lectures then for a doc class. I was in my 19th year of teaching and I was still asking questions of my students all the time. My prof commented by saying, ‘You certainly do ask many questions.’ I even heard myself asking questions such as ‘How do you feel about that?” and ‘What is it about this equation that you really don’t like?” I think that personalizing the math this way is helpful.

So, why am I writing about questioning now? I just read a blog post that I found through twitter. It is over at Selected Reads and you can click through to read it. It is a review of a book called Make Just One Change : Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions and this book is now on my to read list. The reason this caught my eye is that I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with a former student. I went to The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for their Teaching Contemporary Mathematics conference just last week. I was delayed in my return home due to lousy weather in the northeast but a former student named Chris saved me. He was my hero for the night picking me up, taking me out to eat, giving me a place to sleep, and taking me back to the airport. Chris lives in the research triangle area and he dropped everything right away to save me last Saturday night. Chris and I each started at Oak Hall School in Gainesville, FL in the fall of 1987. He was in 6th grade, it was a 6 – 12 school at the time, and I was a 23 year old new teacher who wanted to teach math but was saddled with teaching a computer elective on Apple II computers to middle school students to help round out my part-time job. Chris was one of my students then and I had the pleasure of teaching him four more times before he graduated. In a way, I grew up as a teacher with Chris and a small groups of crazy talented kids. It was a small school and I ended up teaching Algebra II Honors, then Precalculus Honors, then AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC to a group of six kids all the way through. Other kids were with us early on, but we kept losing kids to graduation along the way. Chris and two others were juniors in BC with three seniors. 

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to have had a number of students and parents say some really nice things to me about their experiences with me. I have also had some not-so-nice things said, but I want to focus on the good tonight. One of Chris’ classmates was a girl named Ashley. About a week before their AP BC exam I asked Ashley how she was feeling about the upcoming test. She said, ‘I’m not worried at all. I know that when I get confused on a problem I’ll just hear your voice asking me the questions you always ask.’ Now, remember, she had been in my math class for four years so she had heard me ask MANY questions by that point. But, I think back to that conversation often and I am very proud of her for internalizing the habit of asking questions when confused rather than feeling helpless – a reaction we have all seen TOO many times. The other conversation that rings in my ear is one I had with Chris about 5 years ago. I was living in Jersey at the time and Chris was living and working in Manhattan. He was doing some high powered finance work involving derivative calculations (not the algebraic derivatives I taught him!) We would have lunch periodically and one day he was recounting a problem that had been vexing him. He told me that he told his boss he needed to take a long lunch to get away and clear his head. When he returned from lunch his boss had made a major breakthrough. Chris was talking about this and he said  ‘Jim, he reminds me a bit of you. He just asked some questions about the data that I didn’t think of asking.’ I though to myself that if a student as bright as Chris remembered that I asked him questions he did not think of then I must have been doing something right.

I’m proud of these stories and they give me hope that this habit of questioning does seem obvious to some of my students. But I also know that Chris and Ashley are outliers in this respect. I see this every day with students who are really bright, students much smarter than I am. I give them unusual problems and they just give up. They don’t ask themselves the kinds of questions that they need to propel themselves toward some kind of solution. They don’t look things up to remind themselves. These aren’t bad students by any means, but they do not reflexively ask questions. I am hoping that this book might give me some insight.

As I strive to become more invisible, I realize that the best way to do this is to help my students become better questioners. I know what questions to ask and when I am prompting them they almost always make notable progress on even the toughest question. If I can get them to ask the questions themselves or, as Ashley described, hear me asking those questions, then I’ll feel much better about becoming an invisible teacher.


Addendum on a snowy Monday morning – Just saw this article called 5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students over at EduTopia thanks to a twitter link. It’s worth a read to seed some important ideas.

12 thoughts on “Questions”

  1. I cannot think of a more valuable gift to give students than the ability to ask those questions when they are stuck. I have been having this conversation a lot with the folks I work with, just getting them to ask questions would be a huge step in getting them to persevere. Great thoughts.

  2. Have you and your colleagues made any breakthroughs in how to instill that habit of mind in your students? It’s the biggest frustration I have as a teacher. I devote so much energy to modeling this behavior by asking organized, leading questions. Then I see the blanks on papers or the shrugging shoulders in class and I feel like I’ve been a failure.

  3. I snagged a big “Ask IT” button from my husband’s office – the IT it referred to was Information Technology, but that didn’t matter. It hung front and center in every classroom in which I taught thereafter. Great stories, Jim, thanks for sharing.

  4. Jen
    Thanks for dropping by. Great visual idea with the Ask button. Need to see if someone more creative than I am can help me out with something like that.

    1. Tim – thanks for stopping by! Yeah, that Ashley story always makes me proud when I think about it. It’s a challenge to instill some of these habits when we only see our students for a few months of their lives. I felt very fortunate to have the long stretch with that group of students.

  5. Love the article. How wonderful to receive such positive feedback from your students. If only children were encouraged to continue asking their own questions when they entered school, rather than taught to answer by rote another’s questions, it would not be so difficult to get them to ask the kinds of questions you are trying to re-teach them to ask. Well done, let them ask questions!

    1. Norah
      Thanks for the kind words. I value questioning SO much. When I interviewed for my current job, one of the questions posed to me was ‘What will you bring to our curriculum committee if we hire you as a dept chair?’ I promised them – and I hope I’ve lived up to it – that I would always ask questions about standing policies and new proposals. That I would make sure that I understood, and hopefully help them to understand more clearly, the implications of our policy decisions.

      1. What a great response to the interview question! I agree with the importance of questions.Unless the standing policies are questioned and new proposals made, nothing will change, everything will stay the same. How wonderful the interviewers had faith in your ability to innovate and implement.

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