Introducing Student-Generated Questions

Hello! My name is Nicole Hansen and I teach grade 8 math. One of my goals for the year is to have students generate more mathematical questions and have the class investigate these questions. On Thursday, I am going to be introducing the idea of student-generated questions to my classes.

Inspired by Mary Bourassa and Alex Overwijk, we will start class by projecting the picture below. Students will write three questions that they have based on this picture. After having a couple students share out their questions, I will pose the question of why I am asking them to generate questions. Some of my reasons are that asking questions is part of what mathematicians do, in generating questions students connect natural curiosity to math class, students may be more invested in answering their own or their peers’ questions, making space for student-generated questions gives students power and voice in the classroom, and being able to ask good questions is an increasingly important skills. However, I am interested in hearing what reasons students will give.

Big Tree

Once we are done with that discussion, I will introduce the kids to number bracelets. They will do a couple examples in order to understand how they work. Then, we will go through a modified version of the Question Formulation Technique, which was developed by the people at the Right Question Institute.

Here are the steps in the Question Formulation Technique:

  1. Question Focus (jumping off statement most often set by the teacher)
  2. Produce Questions (four rules: ask as many questions as you can; do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions; write down every question exactly as it is stated; change any statement into a question)
  3. Improve Your Questions (categorize questions into closed and open, and then re-write at least one in each category so it would be in the other category)
  4. Selection of Priority Questions (groups choose their top 3)
  5. Next Steps (teacher and/or students decide what to do next with the questions)
  6. Reflection Activity (debrief the process)

For the first day, we will only be doing steps 1, 2, 4, and 5. In pairs, students will generate questions about number bracelets following the rules. They will then choose their three favorite questions and investigate (at least) one of them. My hope is that this will serve as enough of an introduction to the process and then the next time we do a student-generated questions task we will follow the whole protocol.

Thoughts or suggestions for supporting kids in generating interesting questions?

(Cross-posted to engageinmath.blogspot.com)

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6 thoughts on “Introducing Student-Generated Questions

  1. RE: thoughts
    I am thinking,Why use that picture of the tree?
    Perhaps naively, I would have thought a more natural choice would be something distinctly “mathematical” (a geometric shape, the start of a sequence like “1, 2, 3…”, etc) in its depiction. But maybe this is precisely what you are trying to avoid? Or counter? Or…? (Now, I think: In some ways, the prompt demonstrates its efficacy in already eliciting questions.)

    I’m also reminded — let us say, by the sight of snow! — of a question I wondered about (and asked quite a number of people) a few years ago: Around Halloween 2011 there was a U.S. snowstorm that caused more power outages and damage than most winter storms. What was it that made this snowfall particularly damaging?

    (A quick check of wikipedia gives the answer I have in mind, but I have heard many different suggestions!)

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    • I chose this picture as a prompt because I think it is intriguing and I want students to realize that there are a lot of mathematical questions to ask about a picture that might not be obviously mathematical. I would expect that a variety of questions would come up (ex: How tall is the tree? How was this picture taken? Why is there so much snow? How old is the tree?) and part of our discussion would be about which ones we could use math to solve. However, this might be a conversation that is less confusing to have a little bit later in the year once we are accustomed to more obviously mathematical prompts.

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  2. I’m picturing a middle school student looking at the tree picture and wondering, “Where did she get that picture? Where is that?” These are not bad questions to have, but you might find yourself having to steer the conversation away from the background questions and towards the sense-making questions.

    I definitely agree that leaving out step 3 for this introductory activity is a good choice. The refining process takes time, experience, modeling, and sometimes a rubric to refer to as students work. For the purposes of this activity (getting students comfortable with asking questions), leaving out this step decreases the demand of the activity and makes the act of asking questions less intimidating. One thing that will be interesting when you complete this activity will be if students start recognizing the differences between questions that are well worded or focused (closed) versus vague (open) questions.

    I can’t wait to read about the results!

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    • My first question on seeing the picture of the tree would be “Am I in the wrong classroom? I thought this was the math classroom?” New students to middle school have reason to be concerned about being in the wrong classroom—why add to their stress levels?

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      • I think that this is part of the draw–I want to expand my students’ views of what mathematical thinking is. However, this might be a conversation to have a little bit later in the year.

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    • Yeah, I am interested to see what questions students will choose as their favorites. The wording is intentionally vague in order to see what they will choose as their favorite–will students be drawn to vague, specific, straight-forward, mathematical, and/or non-mathematical, etc. questions? If they find that a question is not being particularly fruitful for them, I plan on encouraging them to either choose a different question or revise the question they are working on.

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