Two Great Questions: Math Style

AnnieFetterSometimes it can be easy to think, “Creativity is fine for art class or writing, but not math. Creativity in math is for Einstein, not middle school.” If you’ve ever been tempted to think such thoughts, take 5 minutes and watch Annie Fetter at an NCTM Ignite session. She describes a math lesson based on two of the best questions for promoting creativity:

What do you notice?

What do you wonder?


These two questions are fundamental to problem finding, the processes by which creators in all disciplines identify and structure the creative tasks they undertake. Because somehow, creative writers need to decide what they will write; creative scientists must identify their research questions, and creative mathematicians identify problems and puzzles to explore. And at the bottom of all of it is noticing and wondering. By asking students to notice and wonder, we teach them that questions can reflect curiosity, not just misunderstanding.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI worry that some of our students believe that curiosity and joy in the absolute wonder of the world are passé, and not nearly sophisticated enough for their “I am cool” attitude. One of my pet peeves is media filled with bumbling adults who must constantly be rescued by all-wise adolescents. For some, such shows might be empowering, but I worry that for many, the message may be that young people really are supposed to know it all, already. To admit otherwise would be unthinkable.

And so, we must practice and model questioning, noticing, wondering and excitement in that journey. We can notice and wonder across disciplines—and the best part is, as teachers, we don’t always have to have the answers at hand. In fact, sometimes it is better if we don’t. We can wonder about the circumstances behind historical records. We can wonder how far the fish in the tank swim each day. We can wonder about the stories of people passing by, the textures that could be created by leaves crumbled in paint, what would happen if we let the bread rise too long, or how many different insects live under the steps. Look around. What do you notice? What makes you curious?

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