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Scenarios: What Are They and Why Should We Use Them?

“Forget The Question” — maybe that goes against everything we’ve been taught is important in math class, but as you read on you’ll see that it can be an effective tool.

The “Forget the Question” Activity

To put the focus more on the process, introduce the class to the problem by removing The Question. This can be done as a whole class (which is how we might start) or in small groups. The students must analyze the situation and focus on reading and interpretation instead of coming up with The Answer.

  1. Give students the text of the problem without the question (the overhead works great for this) or draw the associated picture on the board and tell them only what they need to know to understand the situation.
  2. Go around the group and have each person list one thing they “notice”. Responses might be as simple as “the lines go up”, or even “there is one blue line and one red line”, or as complex as “the blue line is going up twice as fast as the red line”. Everyone can contribute something, and all the “noticings” are recorded for the group (on the class data pad or whiteboard, etc.) with minimal discussion.
  3. Ask the students which items on the list they are wondering about (we often use the language of “wondering” instead of asking them what they don’t understand). For example, a student might ask, “I’m wondering how you know that the blue line is going up twice as fast as the red line.” Let the students respond to these questions. “Who would like to try to explain?” If possible or necessary, have more than one student explain each idea so that more student voices get heard.
  4. At this point, we often ask students to pose a question for the situation presented. You might learn that sometimes math is pretty predictable—in my experience, kids almost always come up with a question that is a lot like the original question!
  5. Pose the actual question (or choose a student question) and talk about it as a group:
    • Have students list the observations they think will be helpful in answering The Question.
    • Let some kids take a stab at answering The Question. Depending on the readiness of your students, you may do this as a whole class or have students work in pairs.

Benefits of the “Forget the Question” activity

The goal is to get students engaged in the process of thinking mathematically and about how to solve problems. It is not about finding the solution, at least not initially. You will be able to judge the success of this activity as you listen to the buzz in the classroom and see how many more students are participating.

Posing math scenarios without questions can:

  • Inspire the students who are afraid to get the wrong answer to share – if there’s no question to answer, how can they be wrong?
  • Slow down the students who race to be done – if there’s no question to answer, what does “being done” even look like?
  • Show students that math problems come from real people wondering, not from some mean guy in a windowless room somewhere writing worksheets!
  • Engage students in solving a problem they came up with. They can’t say “I don’t get it!” if it’s their question, and that might be a little more motivated to solve it if it’s genuinely what they wonder.

How to Find “Forget the Question” Scenarios

Every Math Forum Current PoW includes a print-friendly scenario only version. You can print and distribute the “Scenario Only” PDF linked in the blue box on each PoW, or display it using a projector, document camera, etc.

We also have a blog that features a new Scenario Only (with no questions, ever!) here:

Video Scenarios

Some PoWs even have video scenarios. We first started making these for fun, and the scenarios like Charlie’s Gumballs and Val’s Values they were so fun that they inspired the 3rd and 4th graders at Hanover Street School to create their own video scenarios! Here’s their video scenario for the Baseball Cards PoW:

Do you think your students might enjoy making a video showing the story of a PoW, or a math story from their own experience? We’d love to feature it on the Math Forum! Email Max if you’d like to play along.