cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Did I answer your question...?"

One of my favorite stories about Too Much Information is the one about the kid whose parent has been so dreading the "Where did I come from?" question that, when the question finally arises, she or he responds with a lengthy disquisition about mommies and daddies (or mommies and mommies, or daddies and daddies, or any other combination thereof), sperm and eggs, etc., etc., only to be met with a brow-furrowing "Oh."

When the parent follows up, asking if there are any further details the child wanted, the kid responds, "Well -- Petunia said that she is from Trenton."

I was remembering this story as I was filing away some of the nicest cards and notes I received from my students this year. More than one of them thanked me for always asking the student questioner or the whole class if I had actually answered their questions.

This made me wonder, doesn't everybody do that?

When I worked in technical support and sales, I learned that this isn't just an important part of providing a correct and accurate answer. It's important for establishing the basis of trust that underlies the relationship.

When I started teaching math, I never even thought about the fact that I always asked a question-asker this question, but now I am starting to think about its importance. It doesn't matter so much for the "telling"/"lecturing"/"demonstrating"/"modeling" part of the process, but it sure matters a lot for building my relationship with my students and for establishing myself as a trustworthy guide to the world of mathematics. And it makes me wonder if this is how a lot of our students learn their habits of discouragement. I mean, if nobody ever asks them if they received what they asked for, doesn't that reinforce the unintended curricular idea that satisfying their personal curiosity doesn't matter?

Does anybody else out there have any experiences to share around this?


  1. I've never actually thought about it, but I pretty much always follow up with that when responding to student/class questions. I like your thoughts about how it helps to establish trust/positive relationship with the students--100% in agreement with that.

    Occasionally I'll start a class with "any questions before we begin?" and sometimes I will get a math question from the previous day, but sometimes it will be totally off-topic. School related questions are nice (ex: how can we not afford paper, but the school just installed new security cameras? A: your parents voted to make schools use different pots of money for different things. The school supplies pot is empty, the building upkeep pot is not. And no, we cannot transfer money between the pots), as are news stories (Fukushima was a great topic because some kids were getting into on that from crazy-go-nuts sources). It's time out of the prescribed curriculum, but I'm interested to know what they are curious/worried/excited about and it's great for the classroom relationship.

  2. @Mythagon Re: your second point

    In classes where I forgot to ask for questions at the beginning of class, I'll often have this happen: I'll teach and entire lesson and be so into it and at the end I'll ask for questions and someone will raise their hand and say, "Did you get new shoes? Are those Toms?" It's frustrating to me because I know they were dwelling on it and passing notes about that all class. Sometimes it's best to get those distractions out of the way at the beginning.

  3. I'm with @calcdave, in middle school the majority of questions are not subject related. But, I feel this is when I earn their trust. I love to hear what they are interested in, not just math talk. I think it makes the rest of the class go more smoothly. Kind of like, "We got that out, now let's get down to work!"

    I need to work on asking them (especially in tutoring) if I answered their question. I usually ask, "Do you have any MORE questions?" But that isn't the same.

  4. I think @calcdave's point about the questions being on other non-mission-critical things is true for high school too, not just middle school. I have gotten the hair/ shoes/ new top question in the middle of discussions about vertical asymptotes and end behavior of rational functions.

    Also @ispeakmath is dead-on too about these areas being a place where trust is being built. Isn't this a foundation of classroom community-building? Math is a subject where trust is key, especially if we are trying to get kids to release their preconceptions about math class being a Locus of Doom and embrace the idea that it's OK to fail or be wildly off-base, as long as they're making positive effort for the good.

    @Mythagon and I have talked about building engagement and trust in working with the truly discouraged learners, and I love her use of the opening question. I don't see this as time off-task, though. Rather, I see it as a really valuable -- and low-cost -- investment in building her relationship with students/the class and also in community-building. One thing I learned last year is how much those little investments pay off over the course of a semester. Five minutes are probably likely to be used for non-mission-critical topics anyway. IMHO, it's wiser to invest them in building learning community structures which can be harnessed to get more mileage out of mathematics teaching and learning later!