Saturday, October 26, 2013

Writing Good Questions

Over the course of the last two years, one thing that has become abundantly clear is that one of if not the most important parts of successfully implementing Harkness is my classroom has been the packet of exercises we put together for the honors pre-calculus course.  It was a struggle to find just the right balance between not challenging the kids and pushing them too hard.  With every topic, we had to make sure that the problems led the students to the information in such a way that they were stretched just enough to put the next step along the path within their reach without making the stretch so minimal that they didn't see the value in doing the exercise.  Since we wrote the exercises, I have discovered a term for this type of exercise.  It is what Dan Meyer refers to as "perplexing".  His definition is that this kind of question is one with the following qualities: (1) the students understand what is being asked; (2) the students do not currently have the answer; (3) the students believe they have the ability to answer the question.

Within the last week, though, I have stumbled upon one of the reasons the writing of the questions was so difficult: I was never shown how to write good questions.  Not during the earning of my undergraduate degree. Not during any of the professional development at any of the schools at which I have taught in my 23+ years of teaching. Never.  Once this hit me (and why it didn't before this I have no idea), I asked a few of the other math teachers as well as a few of the teachers in other subject areas, and the response was unanimous: no one was ever shown how to write a good question.  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is probably the key obstacle to implementing any kind of meaningful reform in education.  If we, the professionals, struggle to write good, meaningful, well-structured questions, what are our options?  More often than not, the option is to go looking for questions, normally in textbooks from which we aren't currently teaching or from other teachers.  The trouble, of course, is that is we are talking about writing questions that are fundamentally different than any we have asked before (for instance, the questions we needed for our worksheets or the questions that we need to prepare our students for the performance assessments of the common core end-of-course tests).  The "new" textbooks that claim to be designed for the common core tests are not up to the task, and the other teachers are in the same position we are.

This is one of those problems to which I really don't have an easy answer.  For us, writing the exercises was a long, difficult process, and honestly, we are still editing them, searching for better ways to put the scaffold in place so the students can successfully make the climb.  It was also one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in terms of professional development.  Digging that deep into the material revealed new connections and provided new insights into a course that I had taught for over a decade.  And because of that, writing your own questions is, in my opinion, one of the best things you can do to improve as a teacher.  I'm not saying it's easy, and in fact I know from personal experience it's not.  But it's sooo worth it.

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