Five Minutes – What’s the Question? Wednesday

Five Minutes – What’s the Question? Wednesday

I had two different routines I used with five minutes left in class on Wednesdays. I’ve already written about the more frequent one (I wonder… Wednesday). Although I wonder… Wednesday had its drawbacks, students found it engaging, and I thought it was a nice change of pace during the middle of the week. Additionally, the alternative, What’s the Question? Wednesday, had drawbacks of its own. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

I’ve read about the power of having students come up with their own problems – with or without a predetermined answer – so I decided to make an activity of it. I decided to display 3-5 answers on the screen, one at a time, and ask students to come up with questions that would lead to those answers. For example, \frac{1}{2} might be the answer to “What’s the slope of the line given by the equation y=\tfrac{1}{2}x+3?” or “What’s the square root of \frac{1}{4}?” When I came up with the answers, I usually had a question or two in mind, but I never expected students to think in any particular direction. Rather, I hoped they would be creative, and I encouraged them to ask any mathematical question that they wanted. I was excited to see what interesting questions my students would ask.

The results of the first What’s the Question? Wednesday surprised me. The answer 10 led to all sorts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems. The answer \frac{1}{2} led to questions like “What’s \frac{2}{4} simplified?” and “What’s 0.5 as a fraction?” The answer \sqrt{7} led to very few questions, with most of them something like “What’s the square root of 7?” The vast majority of questions, regardless of class period, resembled these examples.

So why did my students’ questions largely consist of arithmetic or 6th and 7th grade standards? I’ve identified several possible reasons. First, five minutes at the end of class was simply not enough time for students to really think deeply about the answer and formulate a great question. Second, despite efforts to connect topics as much as possible and to continually review, students had trouble thinking about particular concepts outside of a context or a problem specifically dealing with that concept. They could use a graph to calculate a slope of \frac{1}{2}, but seeing that number did not immediately make them think about slope. Third, this activity differed so greatly from what students have done throughout their mathematical careers that they had difficulty knowing where to start and how to proceed.

Fortunately, these issues seem to have fairly simple solutions. First, I need to do a better job introducing the concept of “What’s the Question? Wednesday” and modeling the process of formulating a question. Perhaps I can demonstrate it during the first week with 0.5, a number with connections to fractions and percents, two major topics from 7th grade. Second, I need to give students more time to think. If I want to keep this as an activity for the last five minutes on Wednesday, I could give only one answer and have students spend four minutes thinking of questions, with the last minute reserved for presenting those questions. Or, if that doesn’t work, I can use this activity as a warmup on Wednesdays or as a sort of brain break during the middle of class on Wednesday. I think What’s the Question? Wednesday has a lot of potential, so I will definitely explore these possibilities.

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