How Can Teachers Help Students Ask The Right questions?


Teachers Help Students Ask The Right questionsOne of the most important skills my colleagues and I try to develop in our students is the ability to ask good questions. You may not think much of it, but it’s a skill that requires deep thinking and can be helpful in almost any discipline. I don’t accept when students tell me they “don’t get it,” or they “need help.” To me, that means they’re not putting in the effort to ask a more thoughtful question about what they don’t understand. So I tell them, “Ask me a better question,” which is my way of saying, “Be specific about what you don’t understand and ask me that.”

I want my students to pinpoint exactly what they need help understanding, whether it’s something as small as a symbol or as big as a concept. This way, when I eventually answer their question, I am actually helping them develop two skills at the same time.

I put myself through the exact same exercise. As a mathematics teacher who has been combining technology with traditional teaching methods for the last five years, I have learned to use web-based data tools to help me answer my own questions about my students’ progress. I have the same kind of back-and-forth with my colleagues as I do with my students — with me in the role of student — so I can home in on what I want to know, and ask those specific questions of the data.

These new tools allow me to monitor student progress in real-time, and they help me tailor my instruction for each student during each class period.

The constant stream of new data has been incredibly useful, and it’s opened up an entirely new world of information that I hope will uncover more insights into how students learn best.

The big questions now are what, exactly, should I be asking of the data? With new streams of data pouring in, what should I be measuring?

Using this real-time information has required me to make some big shifts in my planning and practice. One of the biggest shifts my colleagues and I made was to start tracking and evaluating thinking skills, like asking good questions, and habits of success, like perseverance. We use a web-based platform developed by Summit Public Schools in California to track student progress in these skills, in addition to tracking their progress in each major subject (mathematics, science, social studies and English language arts). The platform provides the tools to measure these skills both qualitatively and quantitatively, and we use another website to produce various reports on student progress.

In many ways it has transformed my teaching and my students’ learning, yet I now struggle with how much data I can absorb in one day.

Over the last year, I’ve had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’m still missing a lot that’s right in front of me. I have a ton of data streaming in every day, but I can only use so much of it. I feel both enticed and haunted by its availability because I don’t think I’m using it strategically enough. What else should I be looking for? What is the most important student behavior, skill or indicator that I’m not paying close enough attention to? I’m a hawk about homework, but is that really worth tracking now? There are so many other data points to look at. Should I track something else instead?

What I want is the ability to create a real-time ‘Student 360’ data report: A constantly-updating, full-view of student progress with basic analysis covering everything from their thinking skills, content progress, time on task, websites visited, homework patterns and anything else I believe is valuable at that particular moment. I’d like to be able to get that plus some basic data analysis to go along with it as quickly as the best hedge funds execute trades. I want to be able to ask my own questions of these massive amounts of data and match it up with observations to get the most comprehensive picture of each student’s performance. I want a program that allows me to feed it the data I choose and allows me to decide what questions to ask. If you think this sounds crazy or impossible, it isn’t. The substantial computing power of the cloud is already doing this for so many industries. There’s no reason why it can’t help me and other teachers understand trends and patterns that we couldn’t see before.

I should, at least, be able to do more with my state test scores.

Here, I believe I’m asking a lot of the right questions, I’m just not privy to the data or the technology that will give me the answers.

The set of data I’m given every year is a single numerical score for each student, yet I’m told to use it to improve my teaching and my students’ learning. I can dig for breakdowns in particular topics, but I don’t think it’s too much for me to ask for a detailed analysis on how my students did according to a list of pedagogical questions.

Right now, the state test scores are only a measurement of what students can produce or remember. It measures none of their thinking or learning process. And I would still like to know: Which questions are the most challenging for my special education students? What kinds of words show up in questions that my students, for whom English is not their first language, get wrong? There are many educational websites that provide analysis like this for little or no cost. So why can’t I get my hands on this type of information as it relates to the highest-stakes tests? Again, the technology exists to do this type of analysis quickly and at little cost.

Discovering new trends and patterns through questioning is a big component of my students’ grades. In fact, my colleagues and I design exercises and lessons around questioning, hypothesizing and identifying patterns and relationships in data. Seventy percent of the students’ grades now rest on how well they master these skills, which is a major shift from how we taught just a few years ago. Students who grow in these abilities improve by learning mathematics content and learning how to fill in their own gaps.

I know this mix of tech and teaching works, and I know it is preparing my students for the future.

In my five years of integrating technology and traditional teaching, I have seen tremendous student growth both at the lowest and highest levels of students. Most of my students this year are now asking better questions than they were at the beginning of the year, and this has helped them grow as thinkers. To me that proves it’s not only about what they produce; it’s also about how well they’ve developed their thinking process.

Measuring thinking skills along with math skills is a good first step to finding new insights in student learning, but I want to take it further. What else should I be looking at in my classroom? What else should state tests strive to measure and help teachers understand about their students? I hope more powerful data tools will be available to me soon. Because if the data is only used to see how well students add fractions or read a word problem, then we need to seriously rethink the questions we are asking of ourselves, our students and the data we collect.


Aaron Kaswell

Aaron Kaswell is in his tenth year teaching mathematics at MS88 in Brooklyn, NY. Aaron is also a Master Teacher Fellow at Math for America.

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