Never as Easy as it Looks

Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend three days of workshops with Cathy Fosnot (@ctfosnot) in North Bay. This was a great opportunity to see so many constructs in person that I had previously only learned about through her books, or the podcasts with #notabookstudy and #themathpod. It was amazing to see "math congress," "mini-lessons," and "gallery walks" come to life!

Also last week, I wrote about how math teachers can change how they ask questions in order to probe for concept development, rather than probing for just the answer.

Inspired by what I had seen in North Bay, I wanted to try out this different style of questioning first hand. While working with different learners this week, I tried going past just getting the answer, and encouraged them to show me how they got their answer, or to draw a picture, or to explain their thinking in words, or tell me how they know their answer could be right.

The results were disastrous. Learners became frustrated (sometimes to the point of tears). Some just shut down and refused to do any more math. I wasn't expecting to be a master of questioning right out of the gate, but I was really taken aback by the reactions. I really don't think I was pushing hard, but I was definitely pushing in a direction learners weren't ready to go.

So this has been a cause of a lot of reflection for me. Why did this backfire? What can I do differently next time? How can I better recognize when this type of questioning would be effective? Here's what I came up with:

The questioning wasn't in a classroom setting.
Learners were questioned in one-on-one situations where we were looking at a specific skill or problem. It was just me and them - no one else to turn and talk to, no one to bounce ideas off of, no one who could be "an interesting partner."

It was too intense, and too focused on just one person. There was a lot of pressure to do something they weren't sure how to do.

The questioning wasn't with young learners.
The learners I worked with were older (past elementary). They had been told (explicitly, or implicitly by reactions from adults throughout their schooling) - for quite a few years - that they were not good at math. I imagine some of the frustration came from low self-confidence, or possibly even self-talk telling themselves that they couldn't do what I was asking. At least not right there on the spot.

That's not to say mindset can't change, but there's more history/past experiences to overcome than with younger learners, and that shift in mindset will take time.

The questioning may have come at the wrong time in the learning process. 

The learners I worked with didn't see the value in the WHY behind the math. They wanted to complete the question and move on, or to just get the worksheet done and handed in, because that's what was expected of them. They were not getting marked on the understanding, and taking the time to explore, test, experiment, or draw what they were thinking actually stressed them out. They saw it as counterproductive and a waste of time, when I could just tell them what to do (or tell them if they were right).

Helping a student with a worksheet of "pre-learned" material is a different situation than mentoring a student to develop a concept.

While I'm not giving up - I really do believe that developing the understanding is paramount to just getting the right answer - I'm also wondering how best that questioning can be rolled out in a non-classroom setting. Any advice would be greatly appreciated :)


  1. I suppose if you’ve always believed that math is about rules you aren’t good at memorizing it would be hard to shift to a “tell me why” question. But I think those are the kids for whom you’ll see the biggest “a-ha!” moments.

    1. I absolutely agree! The aha! moments were just not there on the first try. It's definitely a shift in mindset (for all the learners involved - including myself!).

  2. Heather a couple of things to remember:

    1) Questioning skills takes time. I saw Cathy almost 15 years ago and at that moment I said I want to be like her. Since then I have studied math for 15 years, read landscapes, did my Masters and even now write for other people on the subject of math. Even with all of this I still feel like I could improve. That being said I think my questioning skills is pretty good but it took time to learn and reflect on.

    2) What really helped me was reading the Five Practises by Stein et al. Best read I have seen that really helped me set up my questions.

    3) Probably the most important. To ask effective questions you need a classroom community built around this. Just coming into a classroom is tough and if students are not use to it, it is very hard. That being said when I saw Cathy it was a class she never been too and she got them talking but the first move she made was made them question her. Once the talk flowed then the questioning happened. It was amazing to watch.

    You did everything right but sometimes things need to be in place. Keep thinking about this though, I know it changed my mind.

    1. I have a school-based group interested in a book study on "The 5 Practices...". Is anyone interested in offering some insight or advice or wanting to join in?

  3. I love what you've tried here. It's always difficult to "parachute" in and make your approaches truly effective. I struggle with how long it takes to truly implement an effective strategy with teachers when it doesn't quite "jive" with the classroom discourse that is the current norm. There's a certain level of discourse that is necessary for some of Cathy's work to be effective. If it's not there, then what? And how do we get teachers to believe that appropriate discourse is necessary first? Good for you Heather in getting your hands dirty with this! I'm sure you are already on to your next steps.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Indigenous Mathematicians and Scientists

The Art of Questioning on Math Assessments

When a Drawing is Not Just a Drawing