A Better Question

Week 3 of the MTBoS Blogging Initiative corresponds with midterm week at my school. Reviewing for midterms is not a task that I particularly like.


It’s tough to find the balance between refreshing minds or reteaching skills. Based on my review of our last unit test, I wasn’t convinced that my students truly understand the differences between systems of equations and systems of inequalities and their solutions. So I created this basic comparison:

systems comparison

At this point, we had never placed two similar systems graphs side by side in this manner. We reviewed writing the equations and inequalities together, and then I asked students to make a list of all the similarities and differences they noticed. Students were given 2-3 minutes to write this on their own. Here are some of their responses:

I then asked students to share aloud: “What similarities and differences do you notice?” This question was okay. The responses were okay. But something just didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to put these graphs in a specific context; I wanted students to go back to the basics and see the similarities and differences for what they are; but the discussion was flat, and I wanted more energy…

First period ended and I had some time to think about how I would fix this before I taught the lesson again. I remembered the blogging prompt to write about questioning, and specifically, asking better questions. And then I remembered what Chris Luzniak taught us in his Twitter Math Camp session: “Make the question debatable.” It was my own a-ha moment!

I did everything the same the next period, except for one key point. After giving my students individual writing time, I asked:

“What is the BIGGEST similarity you noticed?
What is the BIGGEST difference you noticed?”

That slight change in questioning is all it took to completely change the dynamic between class periods. All of the sudden, I had at least half the class waving hands in the air to share their opinions. The gist of what students were saying was the same between the different periods, but this time the students were more convincing and provided more evidence for their statements. I wondered if this reaction would continue throughout the day, and it did. All of my other classes had the same level of enthusiasm when I asked them for the biggest similarities and biggest differences.

Today’s experience reminded me that one easy way to ask a better question is to make it more debatable. Check out Chris’ Global Math Department Webinar for more strategies on how to do this!


12 thoughts on “A Better Question

  1. Nice. I always wish I had ten minutes at the end of the day to catch my first class up on all I learned/figured out after their class ended.

  2. Heather,
    Dan, Jodie, Kathy and I read the following book this year as part of our book study. It centers on having students ask their own questions in a simple but effective manner called the Question Formulation Technique. Seems as if this is the year of ‘questions’ and I could not agree more. Enjoyed your post. The books is called “Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions” by Dan Rothstein.


  3. Heather, thanks so much for this reminder. I ran a whole worksop based on chris and elizabeth’s tmc presentation. And yet the other day way struggling with ‘why is this discussion so flat?’
    Such a simple shift makes such a big difference.:)

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