The Power of Noticing and Wondering

My first years of teaching, I worried my students looked at me much like Ben Stein as the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I cringe to think about the series of monotonous and leading questions I strung together to a room of dazed students slowly wilting in front of my eyes. “Bueller? Anyone?”

Mr. Stein’s style in the movie is only a slightly hyperbolic version of what transpires in many classrooms: the teacher talks while students passively receive information. While I certainly didn’t aspire to be that teacher— I think most teachers don’t—I wasn’t sure where to start with empowering students to do the sense-making. Moreover, I wasn’t sure how to engage learners coming from vastly different entry points. I thought that if I could ever get to that magical place where I taught everything and all kids learned it—then I could finally ask students to talk about and apply what they learned. Thus, in lessons: I demonstrated clear steps, I anticipated and clarified misconceptions in order to spare my students any uncertainty in problem-solving, and I asked students regularly if they were understanding everything as they copied down what I had told them. This focus on my own teaching moves, rather than what students understood, caused the equity gap to widen, despite my best intentions.   

If I could give one piece of advice to my early career teacher self, it would be to create space regularly for sense-making opportunities like the Notice and Wonder instructional routine. The Notice and Wonder routine invites students to reflect independently about a situation or visual prompt and then share with a partner what they notice and wonder about it.  The teacher then brings the class together and publicly records the things that students noticed and wondered about.

Here’s the magic for students:

  • Everyone has an entry point. Even the seemingly obvious things that students notice establish a common framework for students to talk about the prompt.  There is no wrong answer.
  • Everyone gets to engage. Talking with a peer first establishes a degree of safety and allows every student to participate.
  • Diverse perspectives enrich the class. Students learn to think and question by hearing other students think and question.
  • Open-endedness invites depth. See the last wondering about the problem below!

Consider this task from a Grade 7 lesson. I’ve facilitated this Notice and Wonder routine with both students and teachers.


Here are some of the ideas it has generated:


  • The numbers (without the percent sign) on the bottom are ten times the numbers above them
  • The top line goes up by 5s. The bottom line goes up by 50%.
  • There are percents beyond 100%.
  • There aren’t units to describe the bottom line.


  • Why aren’t there units to describe the bottom line?
  • Why do the arrows only go one way?
  • What do percents beyond 100% mean?
  • 10 cups of chocolate milk is 100%. In what recipe or batch is 10 cups of chocolate milk considered 100%?

The last wondering came up in a recent professional development session I facilitated. I have done this particular Notice and Wonder routine at least ten times and never questioned 10 cups of chocolate milk being the whole. This idea challenged the entire group and we briefly sidetracked to consider in what world ten cups of chocolate milk would be 100% . . . maybe the typical post-game chocolate milk consumption of a basketball team? A word problem about chocolate milk might have bored us; a notice and wonder with 100 percent of a recipe being 10 cups of chocolate milk left us thirsty for more.

Moreover, the subtleties of this diagram invite students to surface two ideas that will warrant further exploration: 1) that the percents are not numbers, but “rates per 100” and 2) that percents can extend beyond 100%. Best of all, it won’t come from the teacher telling, but rather an exploration of what students notice and wonder.

Now let’s refocus our perspective and consider the benefit of the Notice and Wonder instructional routine for helping teachers like me grow in our professional knowledge.

Here’s the magic for teachers:

  • The routine is well defined and easy to implement. There are a few basic moves in Notice & Wonder. Having this clear criteria for success can help coaches and teachers identify what areas are firmly in place and what areas could be strengthened.
  • Internalizing a routine frees up instructional time. Doing a routine consistently means that teachers can whittle down time on directions and expectations and give more time to math!
  • Internalizing a routine frees up instructional energy. Ideally a teacher is working on improving one or two small things each day. With a routine in place, teachers can free up mental energy to concentrate on nailing an action step.

It promotes positive math culture. Students get to practice talking to and listening to each other with minimized pressure of looking foolish. Further, they are actively engaging in an environment where multiple students’ perspectives are valued.

Next Step

For those teachers reading this who wonder if they, too, have their Ben Stein moments–let’s be honest: we all do. The first step towards a more equitable and rigorous classroom might begin with a compelling image or story… followed by an invitation to notice and wonder.