Dan Meyer

The short answer:  It’s what’s best for kids!

If you want more, read on:

The need for students to make sense of problems can be addressed through tasks like these.  The challenge for teachers is, to quote Dan Meyer, “be less helpful.”  (To clarify, being less helpful means to first allow students to generate questions they have about the picture or video they see in the first act, then give them information as they ask for it in act 2.)  Less helpful does not mean give these tasks to students blindly, without support of any kind!

This entire process will likely cause some anxiety (for all).  When jumping into 3-Act tasks for the first (second, third, . . .) time, students may not generate the suggested question.  As a matter of fact, in this task about proportions and scale, students may ask many questions that are curious questions, but have nothing to do with the mathematics you want them to investigate.  One question might be “How is that ball moving by itself?”  It’s important to record these and all other questions generated by students.  This validates students’ ideas.  Over time, students will become accustomed to the routine of 3-act tasks and come to appreciate that there are certain kinds of mathematically answerable questions – most often related to quantity or measurement.

These kinds of tasks take time, practice and patience.  When presented with options to use problems like this with students, the easy thing for teachers to do is to set them aside for any number of “reasons.”  I’ve highlighted a few common “reasons” below with my commentary (in blue):

• This will take too long.  I have a lot of content to cover.  (Teaching students to think and reason is embedded in mathematical content at all levels – how can you not take this time)
• They need to be taught the skills first, then maybe I’ll try it.  (An important part of learning mathematics lies in productive struggle and learning to persevere [SMP 1].  What better way to discern what students know and are able to do than with a mathematical context [problem] that lets them show you, based on the knowledge they already have – prior to any new information. To quote John Van de Walle, “Believe in kids and they will, flat out, amaze you!”)
• My students can’t do this.  (Remember, whether you think they can or they can’t, you’re right!)  (Also, this expectation of students persevering and solving problems is in every state’s standards – and was there even before common core!)
• I’m giving up some control.  (Yes, and this is a bit scary.  You’re empowering students to think and take charge of their learning.  So, what can you do to make this less scary?  Do what we expect students to do:
• Persevere.  Keep trying these  and other open problems.  Take note of what’s working and focus on it!
• Talk with a colleague (work with a partner).  Find that critical friend at school, another school, online. . .
• Write a comment below. 🙂

The benefits of students learning to question, persevere, problem solve, and reason mathematically far outweigh any of the reasons (read excuses) above.  The time spent up front, teaching through tasks such as these and other open problems creates a huge pay-off later on.  However, it is important to note, that the problems themselves are worth nothing without teachers setting the expectation that students:  question, persevere, problem solve, and reason mathematically on a daily basis.  Expecting these from students, and facilitating the training of how to do this consistently and with fidelity is principal to success for both students and teachers.

Yes, all of this takes time.  For most of my classes, mid to late September (we start school at the beginning of August) is when students start to become comfortable with what problem solving really is.  It’s not word problems – mostly. It’s not the problem set you do after the skill practice in the textbook.  Problem solving is what you do when you don’t know what to do!  This is difficult to teach kids and it does take time.  But it is worth it!  More on this in a future blog!

Tips:

One strategy I’ve found that really helps students generate questions is to allow them to talk to their peers about what they notice and wonder first (Act 1).  Students of all ages will be more likely to share once they have shared and tested their ideas with their peers.  This does take time.  As you do more of these types of problems, students will become familiar with the format and their comfort level may allow you to cut the amount of peer sharing time down before group sharing.

What do you do if they don’t generate the question suggested?  Well, there are several ways that this can be handled.  If students generate a similar question, use it.  Allowing students to struggle through their question and ask for information is one of the big ideas here.  Sometimes, students realize that they may need to solve a different problem before they can actually find what they want.  If students are way off, in their questions, teachers can direct students, carefully, by saying something like:  “You all have generated some interesting questions.  I’m not sure how many we can answer in this class.  Do you think there’s a question we could find that would allow us to use our knowledge of mathematics to find the answer to (insert quantity or measurement)?”  Or, if they are really struggling, you can, again carefully, say “You know, I gave this problem to a class last year (or class, period, etc) and they asked (insert something similar to the suggested question here).  What do you think about that?”  Be sure to allow students to share their thoughts.

After solving the main question, if there are other questions that have been generated by students, it’s important to allow students to investigate these as well.  Investigating these additional questions validates students’ ideas and questions and builds a trusting, collaborative learning relationship between students and the teacher.

Overall, we’re trying to help our students mathematize their world.  We’re best able to do that when we use situations that are relevant (no dog bandanas, please), engaging (create an intellectual need to know), and perplexing .  If we continue to use textbook type problems that are too helpful, uninteresting, and let’s face it, perplexing in all the wrong ways, we’re not doing what’s best for kids; we’re training them to not be curious, not think, and worst of all . . . dislike math.

It seems like a silly question, really.  The answer, we would expect, is “Yes, every day!” Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is the case.

For those of you about to first step foot on the exhilarating math train that is teaching mathematics, it’s probably a good idea to share a few facts and myths about learning and doing mathematics.

Myths:

• math is equated to certainty (sadly, this belief is held by many!)
• knowing mathematics means being able to get the correct answer – quickly (again, this belief is held by many)
• mathematical correctness is determined through the use of a teacher or an answer key.

Facts:

• mathematics  is a science of pattern and order (this was taken from Everybody Counts)
• math makes sense (teachers cannot make sense of mathematics for students)
• doing mathematics requires students to solve problems, reason, share ideas and strategies, question, model, look for patterns and structure, and yes even fail from time to time.

If you walk into a math classroom – at any level – students are doing mathematics if you see/ hear students doing the following:

 Explore Construct Justify Develop Investigate Verify Represent Describe Conjecture Explain Formulate Use Solve Predict Discover Discuss

If teachers are doing most of these, a shift needs to happen.  All students can do these things.  All students can learn and do mathematics.  All students can make sense of mathematics because math makes sense.

As I reread what I’ve written so far, it tends to read a bit negative.  That was not my intent.  I just wanted to point out that wherever you are in the vast range of stakeholders of math education, please be aware that just because there are students in a math class, does not mean they are necessarily doing mathematics.  That wasn’t much better!

This might be a better way to end this post:

There are many of us (more than I thought when I first started this blog) who are making the case for teaching mathematics for understanding through engaging tasks.  Dan Meyer, Andrew Stadel, Fawn Nguyen, Graham Fletcher, Jenise Sexton, and Robert Kaplinsky, just to name a few, use their blogs to share their thoughts, lessons & tasks they create, and their thoughts on what it means for students to learn and do mathematics.  These, and many others, continue to push all of us to become a better math teachers.  Personally, they strengthen my resolve, knowing that our numbers are growing along with our minds and the minds of our students!

Relevant Decimals Lesson

This is a lesson that I tried with a 5th grade class to give a context to decimal addition and subtraction. Most of the math problems I’ve found involving decimal computation seem “artificial.” They have a “real world” connection, but the connections are irrelevant to most 5th graders. In order to make the connections more relevant (as Dan Meyer posted in a recent blog: students want to solve it) I came up with a context for a problem that had the math content embedded, but also involved the students in the problem itself. Credit for this lesson needs to go to a 3-5 EBD class at my school. The students in this class about 3 yrs ago, loved to make tops out of connecting cubes. They did this because they were told that they couldn’t bring in any toys to class (Bey Blade was the hot toy at the time). Since they couldn’t bring in these spinning, battle tops, they created their own with connecting cubes.

The first time I witnessed these students spinning their tops, the big question they wanted to know, was whose top spun the longest. I filed the idea away until about a week ago when some 5th grade teachers at my school asked for some help with decimals. The following is the lesson I used – thanks to this class of students. It’s written as it was done. I know what I’d change when I do it again. Please take a look. Use it if you like. I’d love to hear about your results and how you change it to make it better!

Standards:

5.NBT.1 Recognize that in a multi-digit number, a digit in one place represents 10 times as much as it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 of what it represents in the place to its left.

5.NBT.3 Read, write, and compare decimals to thousandths.

a. Read and write decimals to thousandths using base-ten numerals, number names, and expanded form, e.g., 347.392 = 3 × 100 + 4 × 10 + 7 × 1 + 3 × (1/10) + 9 × (1/100) + 2 × (1/1000).

b. Compare two decimals to thousandths based on meanings of the digits in each place, using >, =, and < symbols to record the results of comparisons.

5.NBT.7 Add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals to hundredths, using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction; relate the strategy to a written method and explain the reasoning used.

Materials:

Connecting cubes

Decimats, or Base-ten manipulatives for modeling

Stopwatches (we used an online stopwatch that measured to thousandths of a second)

Opening:

Give students a copy of the decimat and ask what decimals might be represented. Follow up with these possible questions: What might hundredths or thousandths look like? How could you use this to model 0.013? 0.13? Share your thoughts with your partner/team?

Work Session:

The task is to design a spinning top, using connecting cubes, that will spin for as long as possible. Your group may want to design 2 or 3 tops, then choose the best from those designs. Once a design is chosen, students will spin their top and time how long it spins using a stopwatch. Each group will do this 4 times. Students should cross out the lowest time. Students will then use models and equations to show the total time for the top three spins. Students will show, on an empty number line, where the total time for their three spins lies. Students must justify their placement of this number on a number line.

Here is a sample top (thanks for asking for this Ivy!)

Closing:

Students present their tops and their data, then compare their results.

Possible discussion questions:

Whose top spun the longest?

How do you know?

How much longer did the longest spinning top spin than the second longest spinning top?

Show your thinking using a model.

How many of you would change your design to make it spin longer?

How would you change it?

Students used models to explain their thinking to each other and construct viable arguments.

Real Math Homework and Real Learning

Had a great night the other night with my (almost) 14 year old son. Connor had some math homework (Pythagorean Theorem worksheet from an outdated math series) and I was just looking over his work, making sure he understood the concept. He was coming along ok, I guess, so he finished up and sat on the couch to veg. for a bit.

Now, at first I thought what happened next was fate, but the more I think about it my subconscious probably took over. I checked my email and saw one from earlier in the week that I wanted to look at. It was from Dan Meyer’s blog and had a couple of links that I wanted to check out. After about 20 minutes of looking at some stuff I hadn’t seen before– including Estimation 180 (great site by the way), I stumbled upon Dan Meyer’s Taco Cart Problem again and began to grin.

Since I was on the couch with Connor by now, I showed him the video. When it ended abruptly, he said, “THAT’s IT!” I asked what was wrong. He said, “I want to know who gets there first.” We started to talk about it and maybe 20 minutes passed.  After realizing this was difficult to do with the limited resources we had on the couch, he asked, “Can we go sit at the table and work this out?  These numbers are too big.” I said, “SURE!” (but in a subdued voice so as not to sound “giddy” in front of my teen-aged son).

We sat there for a while talking about what he needed to know.  He knew he needed to know how far each person needed to travel, but didn’t make a connection about what he knew about the Pythagorean Theorem to solve the problem.  Yes, problem solving should be at the heart of every lesson!  He hadn’t been introduced to any ideas about distance and rate, but he knew he needed to know how fast they walked.  We talked about the relationship of distance, rate, and time and how these relationships can be use to find solutions to problems like this one.

After a little discussion and a lot of questions, Connor got to work.  He stumbled with some of the fraction “mechanics,” but with a little questioning, came through just fine.  Connor did more thinking during this task than I’ve witnessed him doing in a long time.  He was engaged from the start and he would not stop until he figured it out.  This is what students need to do all day in math class!

At the end, it was beautiful! He not only solved the problem, but when I asked where the cart should be for both people to get there at the same time, he was ready to go. He marked a new spot, and figured out the new distance. We had to set it aside, though, because it was getting late. He wants to see how close his placement of the taco cart is for the two guys to get there at the same time. We’ll be looking at it again over the weekend!

Kim, my beautiful bride, stopped at the table and asked what he was doing.  He told her, then she asked him if he finished his math extra credit (he doesn’t really need it – it’s just improving his grade, not really improving his understanding of mathematics). I found it a bit humorous because he was learning more doing this problem, than by doing the extra credit sheet of 19 naked equations.  Context and comprehension mean everything in mathematics!

Just before he went to bed, I asked him what he thought about the taco cart problem. He said he wished he got to do those kinds of problems at school instead of the “stupid problems he gets in class.”

Connor just recreated his thinking through the Taco Cart problem below using the Educreations App.  Enjoy!