The Use of Questions Within the Classroom

I have a confession to make, this past weekend I attended my very first mathematical education conference! Being the “science guy” I have gone to quite a few science, STEM, and education type conferences throughout the years, but never one focused around mathematics. But this weekend I presented with Chris Brownell at CMC-North Mathematics Education Conference in Asilomar, CA and was curious to see the similarities between this professional meeting and those with which I am familiar.

Certainly the enthusiasm, camaraderie, and strength of ideas were all apparent at Asilomar. I was particularly interested in the emphasis on the use of “questions” within the classroom. It is now almost universally agreed that children are not empty vessels needing to be filled with prescribed knowledge. Children come to the classroom with built in or experiential knowledge, knowledge that is in many ways inaccessible to us and different from each other. So, one of the overriding topics of discussion throughout the weekend was how do we as teachers go about assessing what a child knows? This is where the directed use of questions in the classroom comes into play.

Especially in the area of science we tend to take the declarative statements found in textbooks as an answer or a fact that requires very little thought or reflection – just memorization. Student thinking in the classroom is not driven by answers, but by targeted questions that take into consideration what the student knows. These can’t be superficial questions but need to be “deep thought” questions that drive a student to develop conceptual connections between topics. When students are asking these deep questions then they are truly engaged in the classroom and are thriving. Questions can also be thought of as forcing students to organize and give meaning to complex information. So:  questions good, rote memorization bad. But do you think that it is true that only students who are asking questions are really thinking and learning? Now that would be an interesting theme for an educational conference in either mathematics or science.         

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