What is the value of using questions in the classroom? A conversation with Eddie Woo

This video was originally published 2 August 2017.

Eddie Woo chats to CESE about maths, teaching and what works best. Listen to the full conversation.

Eddie Woo explains the value of questions in the classroom

In terms of growth mindset and Carol Dweck’s work and Jo Boaler’s work on making sure that there’s an understanding that we’re not trying to reward you if you’re just that naturally talented person. We’re trying to reward the effort that you apply yourself with. I definitely think that piece is there, and I’ve seen the difference that it makes when a student thinks of themselves as, okay, I’m a hard worker, that’s why I’m valued in this classroom, that’s why my contributions are important. I think that’s definitely an important piece.
For me personally, what I think has gained the most currency in the classroom is actually something a little bit different, which is the way that I question students in class. Questioning, I think, is a very undervalued skill. I know there’s that joke where someone asks a Rabbi ‘why do you ask so many questions?’ and the Rabbi’s response is ‘what’s wrong with asking a question?’ I think that that sort of Jewish way of developing understanding by almost that Socratic sort of a way of getting at peoples’ knowledge and expanding it by questioning, I feel that’s the key.
So as an example, in my classroom, I almost never answer questions. I almost never answer questions. Students will say ‘I don’t get this’, and I’ll respond with ‘okay, can you explain to me, why is it that you can do this part, but then this part goes wrong? You answered this question before and everything worked fine. Can you tell me what’s different about this question that makes the wheels fall off?’ And then they’re suddenly put in the position of ‘oh yeah, I know how to do this, I’m the expert at this, okay well let’s try to dissect what’s happening in this new question’, and then they start to work out ‘okay, this is different, oh I didn’t notice that before’.
I often have to tell pre-service teachers when I’m mentoring them, you know, the person who’s doing the talking is the person doing the learning, so if you’re busy explaining, in some ways it doesn’t matter how clearly you put an idea or a skill, if you’re the one talking, you’re the one who’s most active in constructing understanding. So questioning students, often putting some wrong working in and then saying to the student ‘wait, what went wrong, can you explain to me where I’ve gone wrong?’ and putting them in the position of ‘oh, silly Mr Woo, what were you doing? I knew what you were doing wrong’. That’s one of the most important ways that I’ve found has been effective at developing a student’s self-concept of ‘yes, I am a mathematician, I can question this process. It’s not just because the teacher said or because the back of the book agrees with my answer’, and in fact I think it’s just as important to do that with the really quick, gifted students, as well as the students who are struggling, because I think that questioning them and saying ‘do you really understand why that answer is that you’ve got, like I mean, you’ve got the right answer, good for you, can you explain the rationale for why? Can you explain why the process you did arrived at that answer?’ and what that often does is reveal a superficial level of understanding.
So I feel like questioning is kind of, for me, that secret thing which I was never told, but I discovered is so powerful in the classroom.


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