How: The Most Important Question in Math

Questions are an important part of learning. As teachers, we ask our students hundreds of questions each day, possibly thousands each week. We also urge our students to ask questions, too. Which questions are being asked and how do they impact our students’ learning?

Consider This: Do you hear any of the following questions in your math class on a daily basis:

  • What are we learning today?
  • Are we going to be tested on this?
  • When is our next test?
  • Why do I need to know this?
  • Do I have to show my work?

I’m sure you hear at least some of these on a regular basis. Are these good questions? Sure. Are they the best questions you should hear each day? Probably not. Now, think back: do your kiddos ask any of the following questions in that same class:

  • How do I __________? (Fill in the blank with a specific skill or lesson.)
  • How am I going to master this skill?
  • How is this lesson connected to previous lessons?
  • How am I going to use this in the real-world today?
  • How is today’s lesson going to impact my future?

Are these metacognitive questions important? Possibly, yes. Will they generate a response that is more important for the students’ learning? Absolutely.

So, how do we replace a simple question like, “What are we doing in class today?” with a more dynamic question: “How is this lesson going to change my life today?”

Teachers, we need to model this line of thinking by asking our students “how” questions. If we display metacognitive thinking, sooner or later they will follow.

Consider This: Do you write homework assignments and upcoming test dates on the board for your students? Most educators do because we place a high emphasis on homework and tests (i.e. grades); and therefore, they are also important to our students. Along with the homework and tests, do you also display how they can – and should – use today’s lesson outside of school? By prominently listing homework and test dates, students think the reason why they are learning the material is so they can complete an assignment or pass a test. Therefore, the focus shifts away from how they are learning or how they will apply the lessons in the future. Is that what teachers want for their students?

What would happen if teachers only listed the “hows” on the board instead of test dates and assignments? Would the emphasis of “how” students learn change? Would the types of questions being asked change, too?

A simple pyramid such as this one can show students how they are going to learn the order of operations. This pyramid was made using MS PowerPoint and could be displayed on a SMARTboard or projected on a wall from a computer screen.

On a smaller-yet-equally-important scale, students need to see how they are going to master a skill. Most students don’t know how they learn; they just go to school each day and try to survive while grabbing new pieces of information along the way. If teachers show students how the learning process works, then we might have a better chance at increasing their interest in the lesson, focus, and overall success.

I challenge teachers to consider the questions they ask and hear each day. Keep track of the number of “how” questions being asked in your classroom daily. Over time, try to increase the number of “how” questions; you’ll also notice an increase in your students’ interest and placed value in your lessons.


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