If there’s one piece of advice I would give to a teacher that’s trying to liven up their math classroom it would be to ask more questions. We’ve all probably heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell” in our middle school English classes. For the math teacher, I would adjust this phrase to “Ask, don’t tell.” Asking questions of our students shows them we are curious about their thinking, that we believe they have ideas that are worth investigating, and that learning doesn’t stop with an answer.
We use questions for all sorts of reasons: to gather information, to provoke thinking, or to provide focus. The more we can train ourselves to ask a question rather than provide an answer, the more our classroom will become a thinking classroom.
What we ask matters and how we ask matters. Are you asking for a correct answer or just a rough draft idea? Are you asking a student to share their own idea or for them to share what their group discussed? Are you asking in an inviting, curious tone? Do students want to answer?
Below I’ve compiled a list of 10 of my favorite tried-and-true questions that I use all the time in my classroom, categorized by when you might use it. Some of these I learned from other teachers, others I’ve come up with along the way.
Goal: Getting ideas on the table
Does any group have an idea about this question they would be willing to share?
What strategies did you try that didn’t work?
Goal: Extending students’ thinking and reasoning skills
How do you know?
Can you show that in a different way?
Goal: Help groups get unstuck
If you knew what to do, what would you do?
What are you thinking so far?
Goal: Consolidation and reflection
Without saying if you agree or disagree, who can summarize/repeat/paraphrase what _______ just said?
What was important about today’s lesson?
What questions do you have?
Some of these might sound weird. “If you knew what to do, what would you do?”?! Ummm, I wouldn’t be asking you this question?! This is how I imagined my students would respond, with an added eye roll for effect. I’m 0 for 250 on that happening though. Instead, students just tell me about the idea they had but were afraid to try. Every. Single. Time.
Some might sound obvious: “What questions do you have?” I already ask this every day! This is old hat! But notice the subtle shift from “Do you have any questions?” to “What questions do you have?” The latter sends the message that questions are normal, expected, and good. Additionally, I tell my students that questions aren’t just things you need help with. Everything we learn should spurn more questions! I often have students turn to their group and share their question, with the expectation that every group member will share one. This helps establish the norm that uncertainty is a part of the learning process and that there are always more things to learn.
If some of these questions are new to you, consider this an experiment! Try out one or two from the list this week and see how it goes. Do you have any of your own go-to questions? Share them in the comments section!