Day one of our road trip got an early start on Monday morning. While painful when the alarm went off, the 3:30 AM departure allowed us to knock out 700 miles and get closer to some of the things we wanted to see. I was a little worried about this day of the drive, not because of the ten hours of driving we had in front of us but because with that much time in the car I was afraid I was going to end up with nothing to write about. Boy do I feel stupid now.
This isn’t the first time we’ve done an early departure for a trip, so we have the routine down pretty well. The kids and I go back to sleep while my wife drives for a few hours, and then we make a leisurely stop for breakfast and to stretch our legs. In this case our breakfast stop was at a service area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which goes to show just how easy it is to find inspiration if you’re looking for it.
There were wind turbines visible from the service area, and in the parking lot there was a display that tells a little bit about them. My four-year-old daughter and I read that each blade of a turbine is 112 feet long. This was an obvious chance to give her a sense of length and distance, plus get a little more walking in before we got back in the car, so we paced off 112 feet. It’s pretty long.
This was an obvious, age-appropriate thing to do that started with a simple question: how long is 112 feet? This got me thinking about student-generated questions as a way to engage them in learning. I love the idea of students generating their own questions; in addition to helping them learn based on their own interests, it teaches them the inquisitiveness we hope they’ll have throughout their lives. The problem I have with it is finding questions at the appropriate level and that allow us to connect it to relevant content for a particular course or age level.
In my (limited) experience, there are three levels of questions students can ask: those that are too big, those that are too small, and those that are just right. Questions that are too big are those that require math our students aren’t ready for, like an Algebra 2 student asking why the wind turbine’s blades are the shape they are. Questions that are too small are those that don’t require new understanding or deepen existing understanding, like an Algebra 2 student wondering how long 112 feet is. Questions that are just right, then, should either lead students to new understandings or deepen existing understandings as they try to answer them.
This is what I’m going to be thinking about over the next few days: how do we help students ask the “just right” questions, or how do we help students modify their “too big” or “too small” questions to be just right without making it seem like we’re doing the work for them or taking away their ownership?