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Luck or Learning? Questioning to Uncover Your Child's Understanding

She was confused. I could see it on her face.

"I got the answer why are you asking me all these questions?" I could tell that she was doubting if she indeed had gotten the right answer. I could tell she was considering that she might have been tricked.

"You did get the answer right" I replied. Relief spread over her.

"I don't really care about your right answer though." The confusion was back. I was pushing her past what she had always been taught. In school, it was all about bubbling the right answer- and today I was asking her to look past that. She had probably never heard a teacher say they didn't care about right answers.

"I care about how you got that answer" I said. "I want to know what you were thinking when you decided to add those two numbers and then subtract three. Why did you do that? How did you know that was what you needed to do?"

I have this type of conversation at least once a week. It's the only way I can really understand how my student is thinking. I want to make sure they understand the concept fully and not just how to get the answer. I want to make sure they didn't just get lucky. I also ask these questions even if the student got the answer wrong. Sometimes, even though they got the wrong answer, a student shows me they know a great deal about what we are doing when answering my questions.

Questioning to uncover your child's learning

If you are concerned that your child might not fully understand the concepts they are learning in school, and might just know how to get the answers, the best place to start is with questioning. Here's why:

Questioning gives you insight into how your child is thinking:

When you ask your child how they arrived at a certain answer or conclusion, you will be able to quickly see whether they used their knowledge of the concept or guesswork to find the answer. The deeper your questions go, the more you will uncover about your child's understanding and misunderstanding. A good line of questioning might go something like this:

You: How did you get 13 as your answer?

Child: I added 9 and 4.

You: Why did you decide to add 9 and 4?

Child: Because those were the two numbers in the word problem.

After these questions, you can see that the child being questioned guessed what operation they needed to use in order to get the answer, instead of thinking of what happened in the problem and what question was being asked and then deciding what operation would work best.

Questioning helps your child reflect on their thinking and improve where needed:

When their thinking is being questioned, often students begin to understand where they went right or wrong. Once our thoughts are expressed out loud, we can often find the flaws and highlights. If your child is responding with answers that seem like guesswork, or replying with "I don't know" keep pushing for deeper answers. Modeling how you might explain your thinking on a certain problem is also a great option to help reluctant students start sharing. A line of questioning with a lot of pushing and student reflection might look something like this:

You: How did you get 13 as your answer?

Child: I just did.

You: So you just pulled a random number out the air?

Child: No.

You: So, how did you decide on 13?

Child: I added 9 and 4

You: Oh, okay! Why did you decide to add 9 and 4?

Child: I don't know...I just did...

You: So you just guessed?

Child: No, I knew that we would be putting the two numbers together and adding them because it asked for how many flowers the garden would have in all.

You: Oh, I see. Thank you for sharing your thinking with me! So, there were only 9 daisies and 4 daisies and you added them together? I thought it said four rows of nine daisies?

Child: Oh...yeah it does say that....that means I might multiply them?

You: Why do you think you will multiply 9 and 4?

Child: Because there are four rows of nine, that means I would add nine four times or do four times nine.

You: I love that thinking! Can you tell me where you went wrong with your first answer, and how and why you corrected it?

It takes a lot of effort and time to ask this many questions, especially if your child got the answer wrong, but your child will often experience those "light bulb" moments as they discover where they went wrong and what they could have done differently.

Questioning models how your child should question themselves:

Our purpose as parents and educators is to help our students become independent life-long learners. Part of this is being able to question yourself when studying and learning new concepts. Questioning your child helps them begin to question themselves when learning. A good learner can look at an answer they got wrong and question why and how they got the wrong answer and then course correct to learn the how and why behind the correct answer. Kids who are stuck on just getting the question right will have a hard time with metacognition (thinking about their thinking) as they progress to higher levels of learning in high school and college.

At first asking your child questions about their thinking can feel like pulling teeth, but I encourage you to stick with it. Just like anything else, the more you practice questioning, and the more your child practices answer questions, the easier the process will become. If all else fails, channel your inner three year old and continue to ask "why?" until you get to the bottom of your child's thinking.

New to questioning and need some help getting started? Here are some examples of questions you can ask your child:

How did you know that was the right answer?

What did you do to get that answer?

Why did you choose to _____ when solving?

How do you know that's right?

Can you show me some evidence to support your answer?

Happy questioning and learning!


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