When I introduce myself as a math major, I am often asked: why math? For many students, math can feel difficult and unapproachable. Therefore, when assigned the task of connecting an UCWbL core practice to my academic field in WRD395, a class that all new undergrad UCWbL tutors take fall quarter, I knew that I had to investigate and present a new perspective on learning mathematics—one that would make sense to my open-minded, question-driven audience. After considering several UCWbL core practices, I found that the most fruitful one to research was “ask questions” in connection to the way mathematical learning occurs. For my research, I set out to answer the question:
How does asking questions facilitate learning in the math classroom?
While investigating available academic research on this question, I found some conflicting perspectives of how mathematical learning occurs. I discovered two prevalent misconceptions that are held by many students and teachers alike: first, that skill and success in mathematics requires innate intelligence, and second, that mathematical learning requires strict, hierarchal classroom structures (Schwartz 50; Wallace et al. 42). Many students actually give up on learning higher-level mathematics because they feel they do not have the inherent ability to succeed. Moreover, these students often have never been encouraged to explore their natural curiosity through asking questions—rather, they view teachers as the only pathway to receiving mathematical knowledge. Through my research, I found that students indeed learn best when they are given the opportunity to investigate mathematics by posing questions in an open classroom environment.
Having the Confidence to Problem-Solve
First and foremost, asking questions to advance mathematical learning requires confidence and persistence on the part of the student. Drawing upon his own experience as a math professor, researcher Arthur E. Schwartz proclaims that “Trial and error is necessary. This is where real learning occurs” (51). Hence, math learners should embrace the potential for misunderstanding—in fact, learners should capitalize on misunderstanding as an opportunity for so-called “real” learning. Asking questions can certainly pose a challenge to those of us who might feel hesitant to admit when we do not know something, but we should recognize that asking questions is truly critical to the learning process. In math and writing alike, we must have the confidence and perseverance to problem-solve through questions.
Creating an Open Classroom Environment
Secondly, creating an open classroom environment requires involvement from the teacher. In their article “Talking About Math,” educational researchers Hintz and Kazemi explain, “It’s not easy for students to express their ideas if there is pressure to be correct and understand everything the first time around” (37). Hence, the classroom environment must center around the process of understanding through questions instead of emphasizing a rigid, inflexible, hierarchical environment for knowledge. Similarly, The Writing Center should be an open space where writers of any experience or level can feel supported in their writing process. In peer tutoring, we should ask writers to identify specific things they feel uncertain about in order to capitalize on the benefits of the question-friendly environment.
I believe that as peer writing tutors, we can learn from the ideal question-driven, open, and engaging math classroom. The writing process itself is a form of problem-solving, and problem-solving contributes to learning. In their influential work, “Problem-Solving Strategies and the Writing Process,” writing center theorists Flower and Hayes validate this sentiment: “Articulating our own ideas and intentions to someone else…draws on a staggering array of mental gymnastics” (450). Just as math teachers should promote student curiosity, as peer writing tutors, we should view ourselves as facilitators to encourage students to ask their own questions about the writing process. If we can achieve this ideal, we can help writers to be affirmed in their agency and identity as writers, effectively furthering the mission of the UCWbL.
Flower, Linda S. and John R. Hayes. “Problem-Solving Strategies and the Writing Process.” College English, vol. 39, no. 4, Dec. 1977, pp. 449–461.
Hintz, Allison, and Elham Kazemi. “Talking about Math.” Educational Leadership, vol. 72, no. 3, Nov. 2014, ASCD, pp. 36–40.
Schwartz, Arthur E. “Learning Math Takes Attitude, Perseverance, and Courage.” Education Digest, vol. 71, no. 7, Mar. 2006, Prakken Publications, pp. 50–54.
Wallace, Ann H., et al. “The Classroom that Math Built: Encouraging Youth Mathematicians to Pose Problems.” Young Children, Sept. 2007, vol. 62, no. 5, Sept. 2007, National Association for the Education of Young Children, pp. 42–48.