Tuesday, June 28, 2011

More on "big questions"

A "big question" is supposed to do two things in a math class. First, it’s supposed to help students situate knowledge. Second, it’s supposed to make the content more meaningful to students. How does a question have this effect?

My (totally made up) analysis is that we’re trying to bootstrap our math content onto a question that students can quickly recognize as meaningful, and an approach to answering the question that students can quickly recognize as natural. We’re hoping that they care about the question (giving our, say, Alg2 content value) and that they’ll remember the natural approach to answering the question (so that they can associate our, say, Alg2 content with the approach).

A question such as “What simple functions are there?” is no help to students because (a) they’re not interested in the answer and (b) they don’t have any idea how to go about answering it. As a consequence, the question (a) is unable to make Alg2 more meaningful to students and (b) unable to provide students with a framework for their knowledge.

Even excellent metaphors or analogies won't necessarily make great "big questions." Take the idea that functions are analogous to relationships; just as we could catalog human relationships, we could catalog the numerical ones. In question form, that looks like, “What kinds of relationships can numbers have?”

But what makes for a great metaphor or analogy, in this case, doesn't lead to a great question. It fails at both the tasks that a "big question" is supposed to excel at: (a) I don’t think my kids will think that it’s worth answering and (b) I can’t think of a natural way to go about answering the question.

The next step for me is to pick anything--anything at all!--from the three math courses that I teach and try to get some practice finding big questions. Then I'll try to take on NY's Algebra 2.


  1. Something that's along the lines of your "What kinds of relationships can numbers have?" that feels a little more meaningful, natural, and interdisciplinary is "How can things grow?" (or "In what ways can things grow?").

    Growth is a very real, concrete concept. It evokes ideas from physical phenomena to personal development. At the same time, the question feels very mathematical to me--thoughts of linearity and recursion and exponentials and determinants and combinatorial operations all come to mind. Keeping the question "In what ways can things grow?" in the air in an Algebra 2 class could be a great way of framing content while also making it clear that school and learning are about getting better at being oneself.

    Thanks for your thoughtful blog posts!

  2. Hello Justin,

    I think that "How can things grow?" is a huge improvement. In particular, it's a huge improvement because I think that students can immediately understand the beginnings of an answer to the question. And THAT's a prerequisite for their maintaining a structure that can organize the material that they'll be learning.

    I'm not sure that it's a question that students will see as worthwhile and immediate. It also doesn't motivate any particular ways that things grow. For instance, how does this justify studying quadratic instead of quintic functions?

    But I think that your suggestion is a real step forward. The rest of the way will be finding a question that students (a) can recognize as important to answer and investigate, not just understand as meaningful, and (b) forces us to confront several particular ways in which things grow.