To ask good questions, we have to become better listeners.


But, why????
When I was young, I would ask “why?” Not once, but over and over. It was a kind of game, but one that the adults in my life took seriously, so that each time I asked, “but, why?” there would be a real, thoughtful, serious answer to my question. Until they got tired of answering and shooed me off!
I haven’t grown out of asking questions. Now I ask my students. My geometry class has come to expect that when they give me an answer, I am going to ask them “why” and “how do they know” and “can you explain how you got that answer?” And I really, really want to know! (I should note here that I also have to tell them that there is no “wrong” answer to this question. To come up with an answer, they had to be thinking something!)
I have instituted “turn and tell your partner” moments. As a class, when we’ve worked through a particular idea (and my partner teacher and I need a transition) I tell the students to turn and tell their partner what their understanding was regarding whatever it is we just learned. Then, as I move around the room, crowded with 35+ kids, I listen to them. I comment sometimes, or drop a question to further discussion to a pair or small group of students. And I always try to get a conversation started when the kids are off topic, or aren’t talking at all!
My goal is to have my students facilitate these sharings. I am modeling what I want to hear, using the sentence starters I found in the book Intentional Talk by E. Kazemi. I recently found a free resource for the talk balloons images. I printed and laminated them for my wall: “I heard you say…” “Why did you…” “Can you give me more information about..”


To ask good questions, we have to become good listeners.
Part of the model for good listening is to let students paraphrase what they just heard. I started this last week. I had a young man explain the why behind his answer. Then I asked a student across the room to tell me what he just heard the young man say. He hemmed and hawed and finally admitted he wasn’t paying attention. I asked another young man (more boys than girls in this class!), receiving the same response. By this time I had everyone’s attention. “Can anyone tell me what J just said?” A student raised his hand and told me how he came up with his answer, but it wasn’t the same thing that J had shared. I tried again, right away. B, another student explained how he had gotten his answer. This time, I asked one of the girls about two rows over to paraphrase what she just heard. She quickly admitted she wasn’t listening, but the girl in front of her raised her hand and repeated B’s comments. Then a young man across the room raised his hand and asked if he should put what B had said in his own words. I nodded and he did! This group has the makings!!
I can’t wait to see them again (A day, Tuesday block!) and give them more chances to take charge of their learning. Baby steps!
Teacher, facilitator, listener.
The students in this class each learn at different speeds, with some students often leaving the others behind. By listening and repeating and discussing together, we can give them each a chance to be teacher, facilitator, learner. The conversation needs to include everybody. Giving students a voice in answering AND asking the questions is an important step towards student engagement.
One of the best sources I’ve found for good questions, and activities for incorporating questions in lessons, is a site called Right Question Institute. The folks there have developed some great, free resources for incorporating good questions into our classes. I’ve also written about intentional talk, and my experiences. I hope these ideas will help kickstart more questions and listening in your classroom. After all, who wants to answer questions if no one is listening for the answer!

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3 thoughts on “To ask good questions, we have to become better listeners.

  1. In 11th or 12th grade, we were introduced officially for the first time to complex numbers. My recollection, nearly 50 years hence, was that we got a very cursory tour with no attempt to connect what we learned to anything other than giving us a way to “solve” quadratic equations with no real solutions. Not the most exciting or relevant tool for students who weren’t particularly hooked on math (and at that point in my life I was anything but a math enthusiast).

    In what was for me at the time an uncharacteristic burst of curiosity about mathematics, I asked the teacher the dreaded question, “Why are we being asked to know this?” GIven my reputation for being a dullard in math (long story behind that, but suffice it to say that if any of my h.s. math teachers knew that I have a Master’s in mathematics education from the University of Michigan, they’d never believe it), I suppose I shouldn’t have been too shocked at my teacher’s less-than-enlightening response: “Because it’s in the curriculum,” after which he plunged onward.

    He assumed, wrongly, that I was being a wise-ass. But it should have struck him that I never asked questions in math class: on the contrary, I simply zoned out nearly all the time. But like most of his classes (and all the high school math classes I wound up taking after screwing around in 9th grade algebra in junior high – not a good move when the teacher is also your guidance counselor), this was a bunch of students who were indifferent to math and while most of us were still college bound, there weren’t any burgeoning mathematicians in the room. So he just blew me off and moved ahead with his mandated task: get through the lesson plan.

    I’ve learned over my quarter-century or so long career in math education that even when students ask what sound like hostile “When are we ever going to need this?” questions, it is possible to answer them seriously and honestly (and with a bit of humor). Some other time, I’ll share the opening gambit I often employ. But for now, I simply want to suggest that if you plan a career in mathematics teaching, you’d best have an answer that resonates with students, preferably one that beats “Because it’s in the syllabus.” Blowing off the question probably isn’t the way to go, either. And if you can’t answer the question, in general or about particular things in your syllabus, you should thank the student for pointing out, however obliquely, that you’ve been operating in robot mode.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Which numbers have exactly two factors? | betterQs

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