Prompting Questions with Visuals

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Questions are one of the biggest things I miss about having my own classroom – both asking and receiving. Thinking about how to ask better questions and also how to elicit better questions used to occupy a large portion of my planning time, and while I still get to do that on occasion, it’s much less frequently now.

One of the primary ways that it has been happening for me lately is through 3 Act Tasks and #VMathPLC (both of which could be entire posts in their own right!). Long story short, I’ve been trying out 3 Act Tasks wherever I can throughout my district and one of my biggest takeaways is how much better visuals can be at encouraging student questions compared to words. Give kids a word problem and they groan. Give them a picture (or show them a video) and all of a sudden there are all sorts of comments and questions!

Let me get more specific. One particular afternoon, I was supposed to be doing a 3 act task with an enrichment group of fourth graders. The original plan was Dane Ehlert’s Cookies task…which I had successfully done a week or so earlier with a similar group of kids at another school. However, as luck would have it, the video wouldn’t work, which, of course, I didn’t find out until I was standing in front of the students trying to pull it up. Yay for a think on your feet moment! Luckily, I remembered seeing Mike Wiernicki’s Olympic task that only relies on a picture rather than a video, so that became plan B.

Now, here’s the thing. Not only had I not prepped this lesson, but I really wasn’t expecting it to be that engaging for the kids…I mean, I had promised them a video and now they were getting a picture instead. In my head, that was like promising a cookie and then handing out broccoli or something. But, what else was I to do? So this went up on the board:

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And I asked, “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” The comments and questions poured forth…I was amazed! Observations about different colors and types of soda, about the rings representing the Olympics, about this display having to be from a while ago, etc. Questions about who made it, how many soda there were, how much the whole display cost, and more! And all I had done was show a picture.

I could go on and on about the awesome work these fourth graders did (they chose to try and figure out how much the display cost), but the biggest takeaway, and really what I intended to write about when I started, is that visuals, whether it be video or just a still image, have huge potential for creating meaningful student questions. That recognition of course, leaves me wondering about how to bring that type of experience into more classrooms on a regular basis, what the best ways are to integrate visuals with our curriculum (or how to pull from our curriculum to create them), and how to give teachers the knowledge and the freedom and the tools to do so. I also wonder how much of the engagement I’ve been getting is a novelty effect – the visuals are different than what they’re accustomed to with a math task, so of course they’re exciting. Would that wear off with time? How much would be too much? Are there more or less effective times and ways to use visuals? Just the start of even more questions I’m sure!

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