Any Questions?

Nobel laureate Isidor Isaac Rabi:

My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. This might link in to asking good questions:

    “Instagram Co-Founder Kevin Systrom believes building solutions for most problems is the easy part; the hard part is finding the right problem to solve. Here he opens up about how he and fellow Co-Founder Mike Krieger identified the problems they wanted to solve around sharing photos through mobile devices. ”

    In Calculus, find the answer to an integral that’s written out is the easy part (especially with technology). Writing the correct integral is the hard part.

  2. Finally, an explanation for why so few Jewish scientists came out of Brooklyn in the 30s and 40s.

    Just kidding, of course, it’s a great quote. What I’m struggling to wrap my head around is why asking good questions is a good thing. Is it because it indicates true understanding, or is it because it leads to true understanding? (yeah yeah both I know)

  3. We are bred and trained to ask questions. That is the heart of Judaism. That too, is the reason for all the neurosis…No, really, sometimes you say to yourself, “Isn’t there just a 12-step for this?” (Well, that, and all the interrupting can make one slightly kooky, especially when the interruptions are from self to self)
    : )

  4. Here are some questions I handed out to my class that they needed to ask of the presenter (and each other) at the end of each book presentation:

    What would a visual representation of this author’s ideas look like?
    What stands out the most from your book?
    What related details would you add to the author’s ideas?
    How would this idea look to __________________ (who, when, where)?
    What would someone of the opposite opinion think?
    How is this like a __________________ (analogy).
    If I were a ___________ how would I (see, feel, think) about this?
    What is the most essential thing for us to remember about this book?
    If________________ happened, how would that change the author’s ideas?
    What would happen if what this author is saying were completely (true/false)?
    What are the (positive/negative) implications of this?
    What is the value of ______________________?
    How is this idea useful to a ___________________ person?
    What caused the author to (believe, research, write) this?
    How could we (prove/disprove) these ideas?
    How is this idea connected to ___________________?
    How can we apply these ideas to __________________?
    How is this (similar/different) than ___________________?
    What is the evidence for these ideas?
    What are the limits of these ideas?
    What are the blind spots within these ideas?
    How are the author’s view about ____________ shaped?

  5. I sometimes find that I can assess student understanding better through the questions they ask than the questions they answer (say, on a quiz.)

  6. Our program’s curriculum centers around the idea that problem solving revolves around the ability to generate, ask, and seek answers to questions. In my experience, students struggle mightily to shrug off the notion that all questions must come from the teacher, and that the genesis of true problem solving and exploration comes from the generation of a question. This is not to say that they can not do it, but they have to unlearn many of the tacit understandings that they have been inculcated with. The Right Question Institute ( and their founders book “Make Just One Change” ( have great resources to teach student how to generate and evaluate questions.

    @Dan Anderson – I love the quote you present because we talk endlessly about establishing the correct problem statement when engaging in problem solving. We use Creative Problem Solving process as a backbone of our curriculum.

    This discussion reminded me of this SNL skit with Jerry Seinfeld trying to elicit high level thinking in his history class. While the classroom structure is not exploratory in nature, it does poke some fun at the interactions, understandings, and assumptions we make with question.

  7. The thing that comes to my mind as a teacher of self-described 14 year old math-phobics, is how do I get students to be willing to ask the good questions that they have.

    Whether it be shyness or fear of being ostracized, so many questions go unasked. How can we encouraged those questions to be asked and/or how can we provide an arena for those questions to be asked?

  8. Thanks, Dan, for this post and thanks, Erik, for the reference to the free resources at We’re learning so much from educators around the country and the world (more than 2,300 now) who are actively teaching students to ask their own questions. They are reporting students who are more engaged, take more ownership and are learning more. We would welcome the chance to learn from how you used the Question Formulation Technique and other methods.