"Can you tell me how to do it?"
(or worse yet, "What formula should I use?")
"Can you help me figure out what I did wrong?"
Students ask these two questions of each other and of me on a daily basis. They are two totally different questions. As we reviewed for tomorrow's Geometry test, I had an opportunity to explain the difference to my students. A brief synopsis follows.

A student that asks, "Can you tell me how to do it?" most likely...
  • has not thought it through first for his/herself, and/or
  • more concerned about the "answer" than the concept/algorithm
A student that asks, "Can you help me figure out what I did wrong?" most likely...
  • has already given some original thought to the problem, and/or
  • has struggled through multiple ways of approaching the problem
The latter question is obviously the one I emphasized as students reviewed together.

From the Iowa Core Curriculum on "Teaching for Understanding":
"Teachers assist students in making connections between prior and new knowledge to develop deep conceptual and procedural knowledge"
When a student asks "Can you tell me how to do it?" or "What formula should I use?," I am not able to determine his/her prior knowledge. Perhaps this is why I struggle with answering whole group questions on the previous day's assignment at the beginning of class. When I spit out the solution to p. 697 #34, I am inevitably answering the question "Can you tell me how to do it?" for my students! Ideally, each student would be able to figure out their own misconceptions (a la metacognition), right?! On a more realistic note, it would involve me looking at what the student did and did not do on that particular problem to help him/her overcome the misconception.

In the future, I'm looking forward to more opportunities to model to my students the better question of the two, "Can you help me figure out what I did wrong?" To me, this is what formative assessment is all about.