Can Novices Do “I Notice, I Wonder”? You Betcha!

For a number of years, Max and I have done math methods workshops for the Swarthmore College pre-service teachers, usually on Sunday afternoons.  At the end of September we did two two-hour workshops for the elementary student teachers.  The first focused on encouraging and cultivating sense-making, and we modeled and discussed the Math Forum’s “I Notice, I Wonder” activity.  We knew from past years that this activity often gets a lot of traction, as the student teachers not only start trying it in their classrooms, but also end up finding themselves using it.  One member of the education faculty reported that everyone in her student teacher seminar was using it, not just the elementary and secondary math folks!

This year, the day after our first workshop, I received mail from Brooke, one of the student teachers.  She is student teaching in a 5th grade classroom in the district where I live.  (You might recall that my friend Debbie, who authored the last post on my blog, also teaches at an elementary school in the district where I live, and this year is teaching a section of 5th grade math, but she’s not at the same school as Brooke.)

Brooke was wondering if she could do I Notice, I Wonder with her students, even though she’d never done it before.  Short answer:  Absolutely!  For the longer answer, here’s the exchange that we had over the course of a couple of days.

(Note:  Brooke mentions “bar models” in her post.  For more info about that, check out this post from Erie 2 Math.  Some of you might know them as part-part-whole diagrams.)

Brooke, Monday, 8 pm  (the day after our Sunday workshop)

Hi Annie,

I don’t know if you will receive this email tonight, but I am teaching my math class tomorrow and radically changed my lesson plans today based on a pre-test they took in class. I am going to try the I notice/I wonder chart while having the students look at bar models. I am going to give them a bar model with two knowns and the unknown that will have to solve for when they have these problems. I am just kind of nervous and wondering if you have any last minute advice? I am also being observed by my supervisor so I feel it is a bit of a risk, but I am trusting your’s and Max’s word and trusting that I can use this strategy without any practice!

Thanks for all of your great tips yesterday…I really enjoyed it and when I saw bar models today I instantly thought I needed to use the I know/I wonder chart.

Annie, Monday, 9:43 pm

Brooke, you totally rock!  I say go for it.  I think you can do it without practice.  One thing to remember is that you’re trying to figure out everything that’s in their heads, rather than putting anything in their heads.  You are listening to what they say rather than listening for the right answers (the easy way to remember that is that 2 > 4, which always gets people’s attention).

And think of it as a sense-making activity.  Bar models are really really easy and helpful if you are doing sense-making as opposed to trying to “remember” where you are supposed to put what and what picture you are supposed to draw.  Are the kids trying to remember some set of steps that the teacher or book modeled, or are they trying to make sense of the situation?

After you done some noticing and wondering, you can also be sure to sometimes (often?) ask kids, “How do you know?” whenever they make a math statement (don’t force that on them when you’re first noticing and wondering – just get their ideas out there, unencumbered by the burden of knowing why.  But later, as you talk about more things, ask them to back up their statements).

Here’s the blog post that I mentioned that my friend Debbie wrote about doing I Notice, I Wonder with her low-level 5th graders:  I wonder if that will give you additional confidence and ideas.

I don’t know who your supervising teacher is, but if it’s Robin Bronkema, tell her I said hi!  She and I played field hockey together at Swarthmore.

Let me know how it goes!


Brooke, Monday, 10:24 pm


Thank you SO much for your email! I feel much better now that I am thinking again in terms of sense-making. I also enjoyed reading Debbie’s blog post, as it contextualized the strategy quite a bit. I am really excited for the lesson and so is my cooperating teacher…she is totally supportive of me stepping outside of the box.

My cooperating teacher is Liz Corson. She also graduated from Swarthmore, but I am not positive what year. Robin Bronkema actually did a workshop with us a couple of weeks ago!! She was fabulous and I loved her energy and presentation as well…I love meeting all of these Swat alums.

I will send you an email tomorrow after school to let you know how it goes. Thanks again for your reassurance!


Brooke, Tuesday, 6:52 pm

Hi Annie,

I did it!!! It went really well. The kids were excited to do something different. They were hesitant at first, but when they realized I meant write everything they noticed and wondered, they opened up. I had one boy wonder why I had them doing the activity and at first he was not on board, but when I addressed it at the end, he realized that it had helped. What I noticed about the activity was that once they started working on bar models individually they were talking in the language of, “What do I see here? I have 7 groups and I know the whole is 289, so I need to find how many are in each group,” as opposed to trying to figure out what they needed to solve just by looking at where the question mark was. Sense-making…yes!

Thank you so much! I definitely plan to use it again in the future and my cooperating teacher enjoyed it, so she is on board as well.


Brooke, Tuesday, 8:36 pm

More follow-up: My cooperating teacher just emailed me the math plans she is teaching tomorrow and she included I notice/I wonder!

Annie, Tuesday, 8:50 pm

Congratulations!  How awesome is that!  I’m really glad it went well.  I especially like hearing what you noticed about the language they were using when working individually later and how it was centered on sense-making.  If you can get most of those kids to think that math SHOULD and CAN make sense all the time, you are making a HUGE difference in their educations.

Let me know how things go tomorrow and whether the kids seem eager to do it again and if you think they are “better” at it (mostly meaning more mathematical, though perhaps they were really mathematically this time around).

I will try to get Debbie to write more, too, so that I can post it on my blog (though technically it’s my turn to post on my own blog).  I’ll let you know if she does, or if I blog about my exchange with you.


Brooke, Wednesday, 10:20 pm

Hi Annie,

The I notice/I wonder went over again really well today and we are going to use it again tomorrow! It is great because it really gets the students thinking critically and it has lived up to its promise of encouraging everyone to participate. They were also more mathematical today and still on board with the activity. It also helps me phrase math in terms of problem solving and sense-making, as opposed to speaking procedurally. I had another station of students working with bar models, and since it had been a day since we did I notice/I wonder with bar models, they started speaking in a very procedural manner again (e.g., “Question mark is there…so I know this is a division problem.”). It was simple for me to remind them of I notice/I wonder and tell them to figure out how they know it is division from what we see and notice about the image.

I take over math next week and I will certainly continue with the model. Thanks again!


So there you have it – the experience of a “first-timer”, captured in a few snippets.  I was excited that she thought to try it, very excited that she did try it, and super excited that she noticed the type of mathematical talk that it encouraged in the classroom and how it is serving as a foundation for sense-making for her students.

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