Effective Questioning in the Math Classroom

effective questioning

As new paradigms for learning math continue to emerge within schooling systems, teachers and parents have more options than ever before in classroom guidance. One of the more powerful avenues of teaching math centers around the use of questions. What if kids were always self-led to arrive at answers in the classroom? Or, what if the role of the teacher shifted from lecturer to inquisitor? Furthermore, what might be the benefits for children who seek conclusions on their own accord and in their own fashion? In this article, we address these questions and the benefits of effective questioning, rather than giving answers right away. A great majority of our thoughts have been inspired by Dan Finkel’s discussion on the subject at TEDxRainier. 


What is the Importance of Math for Children


Mathematical learning actually begins from the very earliest of ages and increases with time. Math skills are necessary for early comprehension of order, spatial gradient, weight, time, and eventually, numbers. In the long run, a lack of mathematic literacy dwindles future career opportunities. A team of psychologists led by Greg D. Duncan reported that “Early math skills have the greatest predictive power…,” even before other skills like reading. Another 2014 Vanderbilt study abstracted that an early talent of mathematics predicts future leadership and contributive efficiency. In other words, learning math early on in life can have lasting positive effects.


Still and yet, teaching math to a student who finds it challenging can be difficult. As a learner, it’s tough to absorb anything of which you’re not enthusiastic about. That’s where the power of asking questions has its influence.


How Effective Questioning Can Improve Math Skills


As has quoted the great thinker Alber Einstein, “Success comes from curiosity, concentration, perseverance, and self-criticism.” Curiosity is the first key to self-exploration and understanding. It can be curated by asking students critical questions without giving up the answers —  this is the first step. For most, the mental image of math equates to mastering the same technical formulas and repetitive principles. This process becomes disrupted with the right questions, enticing kids to figure out the formulas independently. Then, the process of learning math becomes a fun journey taken in healthy competition within oneself and with classmates.


This alone will completely change the atmosphere of a classroom. Odds are, students will begin to struggle for answers: blaring just-thought-of hypotheses, constantly readdressing their classmates, going over their hunches multiple times, etc. That struggle is exactly what serves them. Taking time to persevere is what creates interest in a subject. The struggle will deepen their power of curiosity and observation, which will enhance their motivation for self-learning — 

it’s a self-empowering cycle. The teacher or parent can help to uphold that atmosphere by becoming a part of the journey. In other words, the teacher shouldn’t be the answer key. As Dan says, “… not knowing is not failure. It’s the first step to understanding.”



Staying Focused in the Classroom


The teacher’s role as a curator of the learning experience for students includes management and structure. The final principle of Dan Finkel’s philosophy encourages play. His quote, “what books are to reading, play is to mathematics,” highlights its importance. Be sure to emphasize the ability to play with concepts during the class, which is sure to aid in discovery. This goes hand-in-hand with remembering the answers each student needs to arrive at. Be ready to respect each input you’re offered. If the answer isn’t right, take on the challenge of exploring the consequences along with the student. For example, if a kid declares that 7 + 3 = 9, inquire then what 7 + 2 equals. Remember, it’s not about how the student arrives at the answer —  it’s just a matter of getting there.


Tips for Teaching Using Questions


Here are some final tips that we find useful for teaching students math using effective questioning:


  • Remain Curious —  Add thoughtful and meaningful feedback to show you are engaged. This will help students gain trust in their process of discovery and sharing. 


  • Act Like You Don’t Know — Or be brave enough to admit when you don’t know and explore answers together. Again, a teacher is no answer key but a muse for discovery.


  • Avoid Lecturing —  In fact, try to let the kids do the majority of the talking! Learn more about talking in the classroom here.


  • Lead the Way — If a student is stuck, divide problems into smaller parts and discover solutions with students step-by-step.