Developing The Question & Why Students Don’t Like Math

This is a series about “developing the question” in math class.

In his book Why Students Don’t Like School, Daniel Willingham writes:

One way to view schoolwork is as a series of answers. We want students to know Boyle’s law, or three causes of the U.S. Civil War, or why Poe’s raven kept saying, “Nevermore.” Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question. But as the information in this chapter indicates, it’s the question that piques people’s interest. Being told an answer doesn’t do anything for you.

Developing a question is distinct from posing a question. Lately, I try to assume that every question I pose is more precise, more abstract, more instrumental, and less relational than it had to be initially, that I could have done a better job developing that question. If I do a good job developing a question, my students and I take a little longer to reach it but we reach it with a greater ability to answer it and more interest in that answer.

Over the next few days, I’d like to offer an example of someone doing a good job developing the question and somebody else missing the mark. I’ll be the one who misses the mark with my Graphing Stories lesson. Math Curmudgeon will be the one who gets it right. After those entries, I’ll encourage us all to make a couple of resolutions for the future.

2014 Aug 13. Daniel Willingham weighs in:

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. I appreciate the praise and the shoutout, but I should note the reasons I went beyond 180:
    1) It’s fun.
    2) I find them useful and since I teach 7 different preps I’d like to get more for each general topic.

    but mostly,
    3) I don’t get them all right.

    This is definitely a work in progress and I don’t hit the mark each time. I’ll feel good about ending the project when each major course/topic has 90 or so good questions and/or arguments.

  2. Literally just finished an audiobook a couple days ago and have been looking for the next to get in for a drive up North this weekend! Looks like Daniel Willingham’s book is next up!

    Excited to see the differences between missing the mark and getting it right. Regardless of how visual or real you make a problem, the development of the question can easily make or break the learning experience. Although aware and continually working on this, I still see some of my questions crash and burn.

    Looking forward to it!

  3. I’m curious, too. Even though these days I’m researching and blogging about the value of CAI for remediating dyscalculia, I’m acutely aware that if the underlying questions are not developed, the student doesn’t care.

    I have taught in an environment of “The (standardized test) is our business, and our students’ scores are our product”and it was horrid. When I went off-script to do real-life math labs, like measuring, sectioning, and spec-ing out a new playground, the class was engaged and happy. When I was forced to go back on script by administration, they became restless and disruptive.


  4. Like you might expect from a typical “numbers guy,” I used to believe there should be a huge importance put on standardized tests. “How else will we know whether our students understand comparatively to everyone else?” This was only a couple years ago and I am pretty saddened by how off-the-mark I was. What I realized over time is that it is easy to get kids to regurgitate answers to questions that all look the same through repetition. However, they would still struggle with problems that made them think – aka problems that didn’t look like anything they had been practicing. How well does that prepare them for the “real world?”

    Standardized testing promotes finding answers rather than developing the question which in turn, makes learning a chore. I think this can also be found in other areas of life, but is not as prevalent as we might see in school. For example, when you coach a sport, repetition drills are used for developing skills just as we see in math class. We don’t have the same problem in sports because I’d like to believe that the question has been fully developed by the coach prior to the drill or is simply so obvious that players understand why they are trying to get to the result. It also helps that (most) athletes play sports because they want to, not because they have to.