Thursday, September 25, 2008

I've Got a Question for You

Questions, questions, questions. I apologize up front for the length of this post, but I'm trying to write my way through an issue I'm having in class.

I am trying to teach my ninth grade AVID students how to use questioning in tutorial sessions. Tutorial sessions are a cornerstone of the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program. Essentially, tutorials are two days a week. Students form a question the night before tutorial--preferably a higher level question. When students come into class on tutorial day, I group them by subject area. They meet in groups of 7 or less with a service learning student-tutor. Here's a quick sequence of the "ideal" session:

  1. The tutor gets everyone settled in a circle; tells students to take out their textbooks or notes that they brought to tutorial.
  2. The tutor goes around the circle and asks each students reads/shares their question.
  3. The tutor chooses one student to begin.
  4. The student (now student presenter) begins by asking the tutorial group his or her question.
  5. The group members then try to help the student answer their questions by guiding them to the answer with questions.
  6. Everyone gets to be the student presenter and every group member focuses on one presenter at a time, offering support through the questions they ask.
  7. To wrap up we reflect. The last 8 minutes or so of class are spent reflecting on the tutorial (plus, minus, interesting or another reflection strategy).
For example:

While writing the equation on a small whiteboard, the first student might say, "My question is how do you use the distributive property to solve/simplify linear equations like this one: 3 [7-5(x-y)]?"

A peer in the group could respond by asking, "What does "Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally" mean?

The presenter might answer, "parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, addition and subtraction."

The same peer or another from the group could then ask, "What happens when you subtract 5 from 7?"

The presenter would do that step on the whiteboard, getting 3[2(x-y)].

Another peer might ask, "can you distribute the 2 to the x and y, multiplying 2 times x and 2 times y to clear that parenthesis?"

The presenter would try that step on the whiteboard, getting 3(2x-2y).

The peer responds, "What happens if you distribute the 3 by multiply 3 times 2x and 3 times 2y?"

The presenter completes the step, getting 6x-6y.

A peer (or the tutor at this point) says, "is that as far as you can go or can you simplify the equation even more."

It's simplified, so the student presenter has been led to their answer. Here's just the first minute of how it went in class the other day...



Math is easy, or easier to conceptualize. Well, I see how to use the questioning process in math. Equations are neat, portable and clean. AP Human Geography is not--especially not when students are not reading their textbook and when they do not understand what they are supposed to be learning. The tutors and I lapse into telling when students questions break down or when the other students in the group disengage. The students can question me to no end when we are doing a lateral thinking puzzle, or when we are talking about a topic that engages them, but creating questions about their content classes that will lead them to learning is much more difficult.

Part of me thinks that the students don't know enough, much less the answer to the original question, to lead their peer in the right direction. Perhaps questioning--even just the idea of being curious to develop a deep understanding of a subject is abjectly foreign to freshmen. I'm not sure, but I sure need help teaching them how to speak only questions during tutorials. Any ideas? video

2 comments:

  1. Hello Lee Ann,

    I have a response for you, and I suppose it could be equally as long. I will suggest a few minor revisions in your outline (which is terrific by the way. I get the feeling you are a fellow math teacher, right?)


    The tutor chooses one student to begin.

    I would suggest letting the students self prioritize. I generally had all my students read through their questions, and then I would have the tutor ask, does anyone have a really critical question or have a test coming up very soon? This would allow the students that will be utilizing the information first to go first. Although I also told them not to allow the same couple of students be the only ones to ask questions week after week.


    Everyone gets to be the student presenter...

    Having every student ask their question is actually less important than you would think. The more critical aspect is that the students understand the questions that are asked fully, and less of a priority on all students asking their question. It is a question of quality not quantity. (Although you also don't want to get bogged down in a question). As the students progress into higher level classes they could very well only get through two or three questions in a tutorial period (Sometimes they might only get through one question). But you are training them how to focus on the process (not just telling them the information).


    "My question is how do you use the distributive property to solve/simplify linear equations like this one: 3 [7-5(x-y)]?"

    GREAT LEVEL 2 Math question. It focuses on application - not a solution

    A peer in the group could respond by asking, "What does "Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally" mean?
    I would suggest here that the other students ALWAYS begin with the question (along the lines of...) "So What do you know already?" Because very rarely do students come in with absolutely NO idea about where to start.



    The same peer or another from the group could then ask, "What happens when you subtract 5 from 7?"

    This is more of a leading question (very close to telling them, "Hey, subtract 5 here." A better question might be along the lines of..."What would we combine next?" or "Looking again at PEMDAS, what would be our next 'simplification' step?"


    Equations are neat, portable and clean.

    Very true

    AP Human Geography is not--

    VERY, VERY True! Sorry Geo teachers

    especially not when students are not reading their textbook and when they do not understand what they are supposed to be learning. The tutors and I lapse into telling when students questions break down or when the other students in the group disengage.

    I can see how this would be frustrating, and that the answer to students disengaging is "Oh, I need to get the information into their heads faster, so I'll just tell them." I know this, because I have made this mistake A LOT! Especially when I was starting. But the truth is that someone telling does not mean the student is learning, because you are really taking them out of the process of learning. The way I always explained this to teachers is to think of a faculty meeting. And the principal starts telling you about the new tardy policy, or the latest curriculum changes. Some of the more diligent can remain attentive, while remaining silent receptacles. But, how much more engaged are we, when we are allowed to ask questions, discuss solutions, offer alternatives, and clarify meaning.

    My suggestion would be to continually bring the students back to their texts and notes. If they are not reading their material, then Go BACK TO IT. Read it, find it, it's there I know it is because I saw it. You are really showing the students how to find and filter information. And although I (as a teacher or tutor) am a source of information, I am a lousy one because I am not going to be with you when you need to reference this material in the future. I won't be at their homes later when they have more questions (unless they are having something really good for dinner, in which case I might invite myself over), but their textbook and their notes will be with them. Train them to access the information.

    As the students seem to disengage the tutor (or you) should step up more, and model what good questioning looks like, and even open it up to the whole group to answer and discuss.

    As you are teaching your students (ESPECIALLY FRESHMAN), it can seem like you are spinning your wheels in the mud. But having been through this process with freshman twice, I can promise that they will get better. Remember that the teaching of your students is a process, and at times will seem like a LONG process. It is generally about the time that they are juniors when this process will really solidify and you will begin to see the fruits of your labor.



    Part of me thinks that the students don't know enough, much less the answer to the original question, to lead their peer in the right direction.

    Perhaps questioning--even just the idea of being curious to develop a deep understanding of a subject is abjectly foreign to freshmen. I'm not sure, but I sure need help teaching them how to speak only questions during tutorials.

    From everything that I have seen, you are more right than you can possibly know. But the crucial piece (ESPECIALLY in the beginning) is to MODEL MODEL MODEL. DON'T give in to the temptation to tell the students the answer (eventhough it seems easier). In the beginning you are demonstrating what should be done. I was never overly critical, that the students who are not presenting can only ask questions. Especially as freshman. And in some content areas (Like Human Geography) I would actually turn the tutorial into more of a socratic for that group. Where it became a discussion (combined with questions). I would suggest that you praise students when they do ask really good questions, but in the beginning you are really working on showing the students how to work through this process. You should constantly try to push the (audience) students into asking better questions of the presenter, but this does not happen overnight. Initially the best you can generally plan for is a blended (questioning/answering from the audience). But the true challenge is to you as the teacher and to your tutors to NEVER give into the temptation to tell the students anything. Rather you should push yourself to only ask questions. (Which is a lot harder than it sounds). I know I have said it before, but I promise you that if you model...they will come!

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  2. @Tim

    Thank you very much for such a thoughtful response. I appreciate the coaching--your runners and snowboarders are lucky to have you (enthusiasm + clear direction is always a bonus!). I especially appreciate the alternate questions you included (how could we further simplify, etc.) though I have to tell you I'm not a fellow math teacher.

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