Math Tips: Asking the Right Questions

July 27, 2015
One of my favorite parts of the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice is the attention paid towards getting students to actually think about the mathematics they are being asked to work with. 

That being said, after I read the Standards for Mathematical Practice, I sat back and wondered, “Exactly HOW do we support kids to do this kind of thinking?” I could have the greatest, most engaging math problem in the universe, and if I just threw it at them and walked away, I knew the results could be disastrous.

At the time, I was participating in some pretty amazing PD through my district and a local university. It was all about math and how we could improve students’ learning and understanding in a variety of ways. One of the things we discussed was questioning.

Once we started having conversations about questioning, I knew that the questions I asked students (and they asked each other) could potentially be the key to the kingdom of having a deep understanding of mathematical concepts.

1. Have a Plan: This was probably the hardest one for me when I first started shifting my thinking about using questions more effectively in mathematics. How was I supposed to know what questions to ask? To begin with, I found a few “go-to” questions – I especially liked “How did you figure that out?” and “Why do you think that idea is working?” Each time I planned a lesson, I kept a few of these types of questions in my back pocket to help kids extend their thinking. I even put them up on posters or cards at the back of the room to remind me! When you know what questions you might ask ahead of time, it helps you to bust those bad boys out when you are circulating around the room or working with a small group of kids.

2. Think Like Your Students: After you make a list of the questions you want to use, start thinking about what answers kids might have. Think BIG, because you know they will say exactly what you aren’t expecting! I’ve even made plans that go something like this: If So-and-So says _____, then I will ask _____. Be prepared for lots of answers, but don’t get thrown off if they say something you didn’t think of! Sometimes, I have to take a minute to think of how I want to answer or what I want to say, and that’s ok! (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even said things like, “I don’t know if I completely  understand your idea yet. Can you give me a minute to think about it?”)

3. Don’t Rescue: As teachers, we HATE to watch kids struggle. It’s painful and we want them to get it! But, I’m here to tell you, it’s ok to let them struggle. That’s where the real learning happens! Questions are a great way to fight the urge to jump in and rescue a child who is struggling. Use your questions as a way to push their thinking, especially when you just want to give them the answer or tell them the next step. Ask them a great question instead, so they can come to the idea on their own.

Here’s a hilarious video about what NOT to do:

4. Let Them Lead: The best kind of questions are the ones where they get to take the lead, not the ones that lead them to the answer. (See video above?) I always know I’ve asked a leading questions when the answer sounds like a question! It gets to that point where the student is just saying what they think you want them to. A question that gets them thinking in the right direction, does just that! Gets them thinking and back to working on the task at hand. The more open ended your question, the more thinking will happen!

5. LISTEN! Last, but not least, LISTEN. Once you’ve asked them a great question, really pay attention to what they are saying in response. It can be really hard when you have a great toolbox of questions ready to go, but be prepared to just take the time to hear what they have to say. It’s the most important part of the questioning process, in my opinion!

I hope that if this is a new idea to you, it will get you started! If you are already using questioning as a great instructional strategy, I hope it maybe gave you a new idea.

If you are looking for some ideas for questions to ask, you can check out these Math Talk Questions that are in my TpT shop.

I would love to hear your favorite question you use during math, so make sure and tell me in the comments!

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  • Reply Creative Undertakings June 16, 2016 at 2:37 am

    Thanks so much for these great ideas!

    Anisa πŸ™‚

  • Reply Unknown March 25, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    What PD were you taking at the time?

  • Reply The Craft of Teaching March 25, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    It was professional development through a partnership between our district and a local university. It was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, I think.

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