Aug 052016

Hitting number 5 for #BlAugust on the 5th of August. Excellent. So far so good!


Transitioning from teaching mathematics to teaching theory is difficult. Not because of the content, that is just reading and understanding what I read. No, it is difficult because of how I define teaching.

Telling isn’t teaching. I decided a long time ago that I was a constructivist teacher, and so to get learners to understand the meanings of mathematics and practice the skills of solving, decomposing, composing and all of the other essential practices of good algebra, all I had to do was practice questioning techniques and direct my questions towards the goals and standards I was teaching.

I read books like the Princples to Actions,  5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Math Conversations, and Mathematical Mindsets. Moving into other deeper books on questioning like The Art of Problem Posing, or Powerful Problem Solving just extended those skills and allowed me to become a good math teacher.

There are no standards for Educational Theory (although I have other professors syllabi from other programs.)

There are no books to teach me how to teach Educational Theory (yea, I looked.)

Shoot. Now what. I feel like this.

climbing the hill

This course has no skills to practice (good writing is a skill, of course, but there are no skills to practice for the course alone). This course is a purely theoretical knowledge course. Out of the theory, the learners will be able to place themselves into a tradition, and develop skills within the traditions. But, … I am faced with a conundrum.

How to teach what could easily be a lecture course, pure and simple, without falling into the easy trap of creating ppt slides from the readings and going over them?

To keep myself from doing this, I have not allowed myself to even open PowerPoint. The only docs I have open are Word planning docs and the pdfs of the readings.

Good, step 1 complete: Define the boundaries.

Step 2: what is the goal of each day? What do I want the learners to walk out the door after 1.25 hours knowing?

Step 3: What questions am I going to ask prior to class to focus the learners on the readings?

Step 4: What questions will I ask in class to elicit deeper understandings of the readings and prompt discussion?

Step 5: What activities will we do in class that reinforce the readings and create deeper understanding of the material?


As I look at the list, I realize something. Were I doing this course as a lecture course, the list would not change at all. The exact same steps, questions, and problems would be there for doing a lecture class as a more involved, engaging, discussion course.

Doing this process has given me a much better appreciation for the amount of effort that goes into teaching a theory course. No wonder the philosophy courses I took in grad school (the first time) were taught off of copies of copies of notes. Once you go through all this effort to develop questions and activities you don’t want to change them.

Is that really an excuse? I don’t believe so, but it is an explanation.

I am through the third day with steps 2 and 3. I have some activities in mind as well. But, with respect to step 4 I am at a total loss still. I need to know my learners better, but I can’t go in cold.

This is tough, but so much fun.

But I am not sure or confident that the questioning skills I have spent the last 9 years practicing apply here.

  3 Responses to “Questioning in a Theory class”

  1. I think you’re right that the questioning skills you’ve built for math classes don’t quite fit for this course. But the process you went through to develop those skills is directly relevant: they come from an awareness and understanding of how students organize their Knowledge and Learning in Math and Science. In essence, the content of this course lies in a meta-level compared to “normal” math classes, which means your own questioning has to come from two levels up (and writings on how to teach it would come from three levels higher — I’m not surprised there’s a lack of how-to guides for teaching ed theory!).

    The “What would person X say about this?” prompts, along with “How does this jive with what we mentioned last week” would fit well inside your Step 4. I’m trying to think back on my own experience with the course and remember how my professor structured it, but of course I wasn’t paying attention to course structure at that point, so none of my notes caught it…

    The notes that have survived are a smattering of slides and articles, so I think we did have a predominately lecture-driven experience. I do remember the summarizing activities we did: posters in small groups, followed by gallery walks, quick-writes at the end of class… Maybe I’m biased towards my own strengths, but I think the lecture approach can be fully appropriate for this course. Especially because so many of the other components of your students’ preservice education will be inquiry and project, having exposure to lecture-done-well is vital.

    Knowing and Learning is such an awesome course. I’m looking forward to reliving it through your blog 🙂

  2. Some of the strategies from Making Thinking Visible might work. Several of them referenced use in a PLC to discuss articles or readings based on pedagogy rather than use in a traditional classroom. Socratic Seminar style discussions might be useful as well. Assuming these are K-12 teachers (or K-12 teachers to be), some of these strategies may be useful for modeling how they would use them in their own classrooms? If you have any schools around that are AVID schools, you might be able to get a copy of the Critical Reading book or a CRISS strategies book that might help on how to develop critical reading skills.

  3. Shelli, I agree completely on the use of Socratic Seminars. I was planning on doing something along those lines, which is why I was emphasizing the questioning so much. It is just so difficult to walk in and know the questions in advance the first time teaching this kind of course. It will get easier, I know. Thank goodness! I will check out the Making Thinking Visible book. It is one I have not read (but heard a lot of great things about.)

    Interesting you mention Avid, Shelli. My wife is Vice Principle at one of the only Avid schools in WCSD. I will ask her for some resources! Thank you!

    Andrew, thank you for your suggestions also. Yes, the process is what I am falling back on, and the ability to reflect and carefully consider what goes into such a course. The process is invaluable.

    I do agree with you that this is the perfect type of course for lecture. It really is. However, I don’t want it to be that. I know I could pull it off with lecture so much more efficiently, but I also know that math teachers their first years fall into what they know (lecture) very quickly. I would like to use this course as one of those models that the learner can fall back and say, “Hmm, there are better ways.”

    So cool you graduated from a UTeach program! I would love to pick your brain about how to make ours better. If you ever have the time, would love to ‘hangout’.

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