The Power of Unanswerable Questions

Let me begin with full disclosure: Before I learned about Unanswerable Questions in Hacking Mathematics, by Denis Sheeran, I thought just about everything math related was unanswerable. Admittedly, math has always been pretty elusive to me.

After reading about Unanswerable Questions, though, I’m looking at math and pedagogy differently.

Rather than talk around Denis Sheeran’s concept, I thought I’d just share it straight from the mathematician’s mouth–or at least from his book.

From Hacking Mathematics: 10 Problems That Need Solving, with permission from Times 10 Publications

THE PROBLEM: STATISTICS FILL DAILY

LIFE, BUT NOT MATH CLASSROOMS

You’ve just about finished a chapter in your textbook

or unit in your curriculum materials and then

you notice it, right there, staring you in the face. What

is it you see, menacingly staring back at you? The last

section of the chapter: the statistics section, sometimes

called “statistical connections” or “data around us” or

“modeling.” No matter what it’s called, it gets translated

by a lot of math teachers as “Skip me, you don’t have

time.” But don’t jump on the skipping bandwagon.

Find the mean. Find the median. Find the mode. Make

a bar graph or pie graph. What’s the probability of flipping

heads on a coin? Twice? These are the instructions

and questions that encompass the complete statistical

learning many of us received in middle school, mostly

with data sets of five to ten pieces of information. Some

of us who had more adventurous teachers may have even

made graphs of bivariate data and tried to come up with

our own lines of best fit using completely non-statistical

methods by employing our understanding of writing a

linear equation using two points.

 

 

 

 

We live in a different world now, where large data sets

are available instantly and calculation tools can organize

and calculate all we need to know in less time than it takes

to sharpen our pencils. It is no longer useful to spend our

time teaching arithmetic and calling it statistics. In today’s

classroom, the mathematics teacher has the opportunity

and responsibility to create statistical thinkers.

Unanswerable Questions will develop statistical thinkers

in your classroom.

Rather than dwell on the past, let’s look at the present

and the future for most of us. Our standards and materials

spell out the statistical concepts we are to teach. What has

changed for our students is that the standards no longer

ask for students to calculate and find statistical values,

but instead to recognize relationships, understand variability

and its effect, and make predictions based on

interpretation of data. In short, true statistical thinking

is missing. Statistics in today’s schools should be based on

Unanswerable Questions.

THE HACK: ASK UNANSWERABLE QUESTIONS

When we ask students to find the mean of the heights of

the twenty-three students in our class, we are asking them

to average numbers together, which is a very easy question

to answer and an even easier question to grade. Instead,

when we ask, “How tall is the seventh grade?” our students

must begin an investigation that takes them much deeper

into statistics. They will discuss how to obtain the necessary

information, devise a plan (one that likely won’t work

or is completely unrealistic), refine that plan, measure each

other, standardize their measurements, find means, graph

information, and maybe even come across the idea of a distribution

of data. That’s all before the teacher even needs to get involved.

Since up to this point in their mathematical education,

most questions have had numerical and final answers, the

desire to answer an unanswerable question will continue

to motivate the students to work and think and collaborate.

Finally, they will come to a point where they are

satisfied with their inexact solution to the problem, therein

revealing the heart of statistics: using what we know to

infer about what we don’t know until more information

comes along and either changes our minds or gives us a

reason to reopen the question. Unanswerable Questions

will develop statistical thinkers in your classroom.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TOMORROW

There’s a reason your textbook or curriculum source

has the stats section where they do. It’s very likely that

it ties into the unit you’re teaching in a deep, meaningful

way. Here’s how to start harnessing the meaning

and inspiring your students to think statistically.

Look at the statistics section first. See what

statistical concepts are connected to the lessons

you’re teaching in this unit, and work

backward. Find an Unanswerable Question

that you can share as you open the chapter,

and refer to the question throughout.

Find claims in the media to discuss. Every

single day, you can find stories in the media

with claims made about a company, a government

office, an auto manufacturer, or a

school. Present students with the opportunity

to debate those claims. It’s likely that in little

time, they’ll need a statistical process to back

up their claims.

Share the unlikely. Lottery winners, survivor

stories, and game show outcomes will foster a

statistical conversation in a hurry. When you

read about them or see statistics in the news,

make note of it and bring it to class to start

those conversations.

Find Unanswerable Questions in sports.

Don’t ask answerable questions, like what

a player’s batting average is now that he’s

struck out three times in a row. Dig deeper

for the Unanswerable Question, like asking if

batting average affects salary in baseball. Or

which baseball stat has the biggest impact on

player salary? Those are tough, if not impossible

to answer.

THE HACK IN ACTION

One of my favorite Unanswerable Questions comes from a

TV commercial that aired during my childhood. It involved

a cow, a fox, a turtle, an owl, and a boy. The Unanswerable

Question: How many licks does it take to get to the center

of a Tootsie Pop?

Show the old commercial to your class—it’s on YouTube.

Then, after fending off questions like, “Why does the

owl eat the lollipop?” and “Is this some kind of fable?”

and “Why isn’t the boy wearing any pants?” you can get

started.

The Answerable Questions:

What are the characteristics of a Tootsie Pop that we

need to take into consideration?

What is a “lick” for the purpose of the experiment?

What needs to be measured, and how?

In sixth grade, students need to be able to recognize that

a statistical question is one that anticipates variability in

the data. While the class is discussing and defining the

components of the Answerable Questions, they will see

that variability exists, even in their definitions, and as such,

will exist in their data. Even when they come to an agreement

on definitions and procedures, they will quickly find

that during the data gathering, different students are following

the procedures differently. This leads them directly

into the next question: What do we do with our data?

Students may have enough mathematical acumen at this

point to be able to make good, if not entirely correct, suggestions

as to what should be done with the data—so let

them. In my experience, by the third or fourth suggestion,

they come up with “Average it all together,” or “List it from

smallest to biggest,” and even “Graph it.” At this point, I

may break the class into teams to complete each of the different

valid suggestions and report back, or I may take one

of the suggestions and run with it, depending on the focus

of our previous and upcoming content instruction.

Click image to learn more

Sixth graders need to be able to describe the distribution

of the data using its overall shape, center, and spread,

and recognize that its center describes all the data at once,

while the spread (variation) describes how all the data is

different from each other. They also need to be able to

display the data on a number line (dotplot or histogram)

and describe the distribution in context.

I expect my sixth graders to be able to say: “After

licking both sides of our own Tootsie Pops until each student

reached the chocolate center, we counted the number

of licks per student on each side. The mean number of

licks was ##. This was more/less than I expected. When

we graphed the data, the distribution was almost symmetrical

except for one point which took many more licks

to get to the center. The median, or middle value, was

less than the mean, and I think that’s because of the large

number of licks it took on one Tootsie Pop. No one licked

more than ## times or less than ## times before reaching

the center.”

Remember, the goal with sixth grade is not to pass the

AP Stats test, but to introduce data-gathering methods,

require correct statistical language, and to develop the

ability to describe sets of data. To extend this to higher

grades, weigh the lollipops first and compare weight and

number of licks as a linear relationship. (There’s a surprise

ending to that one that I won’t divulge). Students

should also discuss whether or not the Tootsie Pops could

be called a “random sample,” and what randomness is

and why it is important.

— end excerpt

Learn more about Unanswerable Questions and other problems that need solving in Hacking Mathematics.

Available on Amazon

Available on Barnes & Noble


More from the Hack Learning Podcast

Video produced by Tootsie Roll, 2012

Finally! Education Books that Actually Solve Problems

front and back cover

Are you tired of the same old education books? You know the kind: Literacy training, Leadership strategies, Classroom management, Test preparation. . . . The list of been-there-done-that education books is longer than some interstate freeways.

You work hard. You have problems, and you deserve better. You need real solutions, now. Another 5-year plan isn’t going to cut it.

Welcome to the Hack Learning Series: Education books that solve big problems with simple ideas.

We are a few short months away from launching our first Hack Learning Series book, Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Not long after Hacking Education drops, our second book in the series will be published.

In 2016, we plan to publish four Hack Learning books, and every one will solve your biggest teaching and learning problems with amazingly simple ideas that you can implement immediately.

Support the HLS

These powerful books are currently being produced by some of the best education hackers in the world, but we need your support to launch this groundbreaking series.

Please take a look at our fundraising campaign, linked below, ending soon.

Support the Hack Learning Series, and we’ll add you to our Partner page and send along other outstanding perks. In fact, our Partner Level contributors receive Hack Learning books for life.

Thanks for your support. Keep an eye out for Hack Learning books, coming to Amazon, Barnes &  Noble and a bookstore near you.

Don’t miss the new Hack Learning mobile app. It’s free and loaded with amazing content for all education shareholders.

crowdfunding

5 Reasons We Need You to Support Our Crowdfunding Campaign

Not long ago, I had an idea to recruit experts to write a series of books on hacking learning. A few weeks later, I created a project plan that included many expensive parts. I needed money, and a friend suggested crowdfunding.

At first, I was dubious; I wasn’t sure this was evening a real thing. Then, I began researching crowdfunding and quickly learned that not only is it a legitimate way to raise money, people use crowdfunding for anything from buying a laptop to starting a software company to producing a movie.

After much contemplation, long conversations with partners and plenty of doubt, we decided to create a crowdfunding campaign. Is it a crazy idea? I thought so, at first.

Then, I realized something truly remarkable about crowdfunding–it has very little to do with raising money.

5 Reasons we use crowdfunding

1-To build awareness

I share massive amounts of content to millions of people every month on social networks, in order to inspire and help people solve problems. The Hack Learning Series is designed to do exactly this: Solve big problems with simple ideas. Crowdfunding sites, like Indigogo, can be more powerful than Facebook or Twitter. Not only do crowdfunding platforms provide social environments, they build awareness about what might just be the next great thing.

2–To provide purpose

You want to be part of something special; we all do. You want to contribute. Whether it’s your family, your school, your church, or your book club, you are proud to contribute to your special group or cause. A crowdfunding project gives you a glimpse of something before the world sees it. Even better, you can contribute to a vision and become part of the project or cause. When you donate, you invest in something you believe in; you now have one more thing that makes you feel special.

3–To avoid bureaucracy

Two years ago, I left my classroom, so I could write and present full-time. I had a grand vision of making the world a better place by helping educators improve how they help kids. Soon, consulting companies came calling. They invited me to push their products, to teach people how to integrate the Common Core or to promote someone else’s idea. I declined plenty of lucrative offers, knowing that in order to realize my dream, I need to work outside of the confines of organizations that have agendas that are different from mine. Crowdfunding will help me avoid the bureaucracy and promote what I know teachers, students and parents around the world need most.

4–To build community

Social networks have connected me to hundreds of thousands of teachers, parents, students and thought leaders from all over the world. We rely on each other to improve teaching and learning. Crowdfunding will, I hope, attract these existing community members and many others outside of my social networks. With a shared interest in improving teaching and learning the network that is created in the Hack Learning Series crowdfunding campaign should prove to be one of the most powerful communities in education. These people will be dedicated to changing the world.

5–To create 

In a world filled with regurgitation, standardization and accountability, creativity is often lost. Corporations and venture capitalists want cookie-cutter projects that mimic something that’s already been successful. Conversely, crowdfunding provides a chance for visionaries to create something original. People who contribute to crowdfunding campaigns look for what’s new, different, and creative. Teachers, parents and college students certainly don’t need another How to Pass a Standardized Test playbook. The Hack Learning Series crowdfunding campaign provides a path to something new, something visionary, something that is a true game changer.

Now that you understand why I chose crowdfunding, I hope you’ll consider contributing to not just me and my team but to a project that can change the world and create better teaching and learning forever.

A version of this post also appears on Brilliant or Insane.

tools for hacking education

10 Fixes for Every School

Disclaimer: You won’t find 10 fixes for every school in this article. You will find a few, though; enough to whet your appetite for the first book in the Hack Learning Series–Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School (Times 10 Publications, 2015).

The idea for Hacking Education originated in a blog post I wrote and published at Brilliant or Insane, about solving three gigantic problems in education. Here is the beginning of that post:

There’s an amazing Voxer chat group called Talks with Teachers, composed of remarkable educators who converse about best education practices, technology integration, assessment and many other subjects. We recently discussed things that make teachers’ jobs difficult. The chat was not about principals, but upon further consideration, it occurred to me that school principals could easily solve most of these issues.

Granted, school principals and teachers often have different perspectives, based on the worlds they live in. Still, some of educators’ biggest problems have shockingly simple solutions.

This is a glimpse of the problems addressed in the B or I post:

Problem #1: faculty meetings

Your faculty meeting needs a makeover. After nearly 20 years and roughly 24,000 minutes of lost time, I realized that faculty meetings are a place where great ideas go to die. The average faculty meeting consists of lectures that teachers don’t need in the first place about information that won’t improve their methods. Does your faculty meeting resemble the picture above? Are you the woman with the phone? It’s okay; I won’t tell. Hey, I used text, tweet, read email or chat with a peer during faculty meetings, because I wanted to get back as many of those lost minutes as possible.

Problem #2: muting teachers

While many school principals might say faculty meetings or private meetings give teachers the opportunity to be heard, what typically happens, much like in the classroom, is the same people do all the talking in faculty meetings. As some shy students are uncomfortable with class and private discussions, there are also teachers who fear that they will look bad, if they speak in a staff meeting or in a principal’s office.

You can read the rest of the blog post at Brilliant or Insane.

A hot discussion on social media ensued, and someone suggested that there was a book in the mix. “There are more problems like these,” the enthusiastic teacher wrote.

Not long after that comment, author/educator Jennifer Gonzalez and I wrote Hacking Education, and the Hack Learning Series was born.