# I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know…

Let me just start with this.  If you live in Georgia, say within a 2 hour drive to the UGA Griffin campus, seriously consider joining the Masters’ or EdS program.  I’m in my first semester.  It’s amazing!  ‘Nuff said.

Maybe it’s just me… I thought I understood everything I needed to know about fraction equivalence… until this week.  If you get to the end and think, “Oh, I already knew that!” I apologize.  This is post is really for me to reflect a bit.  If it helps anyone else make sense of fractions…well that’s just gravy!

It all started with an assignment for one of my graduate classes. The assignment was to read Chapter 3 from Number Talks Fractions, Decimals, and Percents by Sherry Parrish and reflect on one of the big ideas and the common misconceptions connected to those big ideas.  I chose to reflect on fraction equivalence.

In the section on equivalence, Dr. Parrish talks about how students want to take fractions like 1/4 and multiply by two to get an equivalent fraction of 2/8. This misconception may be fostered by teachers who wish to make equivalent fractions easy for their students to remember. This is never a good idea!  Because really… if you multiply 1/4 by two, that means you have 2 groups of 1/4.  And 2 groups of 1/4 gives you 2/4 and 1/4 can’t be the same as 2/4.

What I learned next came from a phone conversation I had with Graham Fletcher about 15 seconds after I finished reading the chapter.  Sometimes I just think he knows when I’m learning some math and gives me a call.  He had a question about equivalent fractions. Over the course of about 45 minutes talking on the phone, I think we both deepened our understandings about what makes two fractions equivalent.

Take the rule of multiplying the numerator and the denominator both by the same number to make an equivalent fraction.  If we look at 1/4 and multiply the numerator and denominator by two to get 2/8, we get an equivalent fraction, but this isn’t necessarily the whole story.  To really understand fraction equivalence, I had to be asked to dive a little deeper. Graham asked me to dive deeper.  As we talked, multiplying by one came up, then the multiplicative identity.  These ideas definitely strengthened my understanding of fraction equivalence.

I thought I now had a deep understanding of fraction equivalence.  But wait, there’s more.  This is the best part.  I went to class this past Saturday and Dr. Robyn Ovrick gave us this:

We were asked to fold the paper as many times as we wanted as long as all of the sections were the same size.  Some of us folded once (guilty – I hate folding almost as much as I hate cutting).  We shared our folds and Robyn recorded what several of us did on the smart board.  Then she asked what we noticed.  This is where everything came together for me.  I tried to share my thoughts but I don’t think I was very successful.  I was really excited about this.  Here is my (1 fold) representation of an equivalent fraction for 1/4:

For my example, someone said the number of pieces doubled, and at this point (my eyes probably almost shot out of my head) I thought, but the size of the pieces are half as big.  I’m usually pretty reserved and quiet, but this was too much.  So, with a lot of help from colleagues in class who know me a bit better than the others it all came clear to me.  We visually made equivalent fractions, but connected the visual to the multiplicative identity and even explained it in the context of paper folding.

Here it is.

The original paper shows 1/4.  When we fold it in half horizontally, we get 2 times as many pieces and the pieces are half the size.  This can be represented here:

The 1/4 represents the original fraction. The 2 shows that we got twice as many pieces, and the 1/2 shows that each of those pieces is half the size.  With a little multiplication and the commutative property we can get something that looks like this:

Knowing that two halves is one whole is definitely part of this understanding, but seeing where it can come from in the context of paper folding allows an opportunity for a much deeper understanding. The numerator tells that there are twice as many sections as before and the denominator (really the fraction 1/2) says that the pieces are now half the size.  We looked at another example of how someone folded 1/4 (someone who folded 8 times!) and noticed that it worked the similarly – we got 8 times as many pieces and the pieces were each 1/8 the size of the original.  I don’t think anyone thought it wouldn’t work similarly, but it sure is nice to see your ideas validate something you thought you really understood before waking up that morning!

I’m still thinking about this and I keep making more connections.  This morning, in a place where I think I do my best thinking (the shower!), I realized that this is connected to the strategy of doubling and halving for multiplication.  I’ll leave you with that.  Time for you to chew.

My lessons never stay the same.  They’re always evolving.  Recently, I’ve taken a look at some 3-Act Tasks I created and I noticed:

• Some of the tasks are lacking an act.
• Others have resources that no students ask for (at least students that I’ve worked with).
• The quality is low (shaky camera, point of changes, etc.)

So, I finally had a minute (read 2 days) and revisited each.  Below, you’ll see the tasks I’ve chosen to revisit.  An explanation of the original, what I changed, and why I changed it follows.  If you’d like to skip this and get to the revisited tasks, click here.

## Revisited #1 – The Candy Bowl

My very first attempt at a 3-act task was the Candy Bowl task.  I was working in an elementary school at the time and Graham Fletcher had created problem to get 2nd and 3rd grade students reasoning about subtraction by removing the numbers from the problem context.  His context involved the lunchroom and numbers of students in three classes.  We talked on the phone about this for a while and though I liked the problem, I wasn’t crazy about the context.  I sat in my room trying to think of a context that would be a bit more engaging for students to think about.  And the Candy Bowl was created.

It was a good problem, but it really lacked one of the most basic parts of a 3-Act Task… The third act.  The reveal was weak, because it relied on the teacher to give students validation.  The updated version, which had to be done from scratch (apparently whoppers candies are no where to be found anywhere near Valentine’s day), can be found here with all new updated resources for Act 2 and new video including two reveals, depending on which question students decide to tackle.

## Revisited #2 – Sweet Tart Hearts

Another one of my early tasks was Sweet Tart Hearts.  I really liked this one from the beginning. There is a huge focus on estimation which allows for students to obtain solutions that are close, but not exact in most cases.  This also allows for the teacher to facilitate a discussion about why answers may not be exact for a variety of reasons.  But again, it really lacked that third act.  The task was good, but the closing of the lesson was weak due to the fact that the students were relying on the “all knowing” teacher to give them affirmation.

Apparently Sweet Tart Hearts are a hot commodity a few days before Valentine’s day.  I went out the other day for a quick run to pick up a bag.  I had to go to 4 stores and finally found a bag (the last one).  I thought it would take about 10 minutes to do this revisit.  Surely the  numbers for the colors would be similar to the last time.  Not only was that not true, but Sweet Tarts changed the orange hearts to yellow!  But, the revisit is all done and I’m very pleased with the new reveal which allows the video to reveal the answer and the teacher to focus students on the reasonableness of their solutions.

## Revisited #3 – The Penny Cube

So, this was the quickest fix.  I just updated the Penny Cube page (all of the coin specifications are still there – in case anyone wants them).

Note:  In this post I share how I changed my approach to teaching the Penny Cube task.

So, it took a few days, but I’ve revisited some tasks that have been bugging me for a while and I hope it’s for the best.  I know I’ll probably give these another look in the future.  I’ll just need to start in early January to make sure I get the candy I need.

# Happy Accidents

When I was growing up in (rural-ish) central New York, we had one TV.  We received 5 local stations through the antenna on the roof (abc, nbc, occasionally cbs if the wind was blowing just right, then Fox came along, and a pbs station).  This was a time when TV programming on the major networks actually ended at about 1:00 a.m. with a video of the American flag waving in the wind and the national anthem playing.  When that was over, there was nothing on TV but static.  This is something my kids can’t imagine. Not that they watch regular TV that often anyway (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.), but every time they turn it on, there are at least 100 shows to choose from on 4 TVs.

This wasn’t the case for my siblings and me.  Usually, the first person in the living room got dibs on what show was on or there had to be a “discussion” to figure out what everyone would watch.  Sometimes this ended in the TV being turned off by Mom or Dad with a “suggestion” that we go outside and get some fresh air.  Other times, we would decide to figure it out on our own and end up on the local PBS station watching a man with a huge perm (this was the 1980s) paint beautiful scenes in about 25 minutes.

We (my 5 siblings and I) were all in awe while we watched Bob Ross paint wonderful paintings while talking to us (the viewers) about everything from his pet squirrels to painting techniques.  And at the end of every episode I felt like I could paint just like Bob Ross!  I never tried, but I felt like I could!

Recently, my kids have discovered the talent and wonder of Bob Ross through YouTube and Netflix. They love his words of wisdom:

• “Just go out and talk to a tree.  Make friends with it.”
• “There’s nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend.”
• “How do you make a round circle with a square knife?  That’s your challenge for the day.”
• “Any time ya learn, ya gain.”
• “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”

And I love that they love these words of wisdom.  You can find more here.

For Christmas this year, my son and I received Bob Ross T-shirts.  Connor’s has just an image, while mine has a quote as well:

Bob Ross was referring to painting when he said these words; “In painting there are no mistakes, just happy accidents.”  In other words, when you paint your mountain the wrong shape, treat it as a happy accident.  It can still be a mountain, there may just end up being a happy tree or a happy cloud that takes care of your happy accident.

I think it works for math class, too.  Recently, I modeled a Desmos lesson for a 7th grade teacher.  The students had been working with expressions and equations but were struggling with the abstract ideas associated with expressions and equations.  The teacher and I planned for me to model Desmos using Central Park to see how students reacted to the platform (this was their first time using Desmos) and how I managed the class using the teacher dashboard.

During the lesson, there was a lot of productive struggle.  Students were working in pairs and making mistakes happy accidents.  They were happy accidents!  Because students kept going back for more.  At times there was some frustration involved and I stepped in to ask questions like:

• What are you trying to figure out?
• Where did the numbers you used in your expression come from?
• What do each of the numbers you used represent?
• Before you click the “try it” button, how confident are you that the cars will all park?

The last question was incredibly informative.  Many students who answered this question were not confident at all that their cars would all park, but as they moved through the lesson, their confidence grew.

One of the best take-aways the teacher mentioned during our post-conference was  when she mentioned a certain boy and girl who she paired together so the (high performing) girl could help the (low performing) boy.  The exact opposite happened.  The girl was trying to crunch numbers on screen 5 with little success.  The boy just needed a nudge to think about the image and to go back to some previous screens to settle some ideas in his mind before moving ahead with his idea that the answer is 8.  Then, he got to expain how he knew it was 8 with the picture, conceptually, to his partner.  The teacher’s mistake happy accident was in believing her students would always perform a certain way.  When students are engaged in tasks that are meaningful, they tend to perform differently than when they’re given a worksheet with 30 meaningless problems on it (the norm for this class before Desmos).  Ah-has all around and the “low student” shows that he knows more than the teacher thinks.

The icing on the cake?  Several students walking out of the classroom could be heard saying, “That was cool.” or “That was fun.”

Let’s treat math mistakes as happy accidents, something to learn from and problem solve our way through.  When students (all humans) make a mistake, synapses fire.  The brain grows (More on this from Jo Boaler here).  What we do as teachers from this point, determines how much more the brain will grow.  If we treat student mistakes as happy accidents, perhaps their brains will grow a bit more than if we continue to treat mistakes in the traditional manner.

Let’s hear it for Bob Ross.  He probably never thought his words of wisdom about painting would be translated to the math classroom.

Now, go make friends with a math problem.

# Georgia Math Conference 2016

For the second year in a row, I had the privilege and honor to give an ignite talk at the Georgia Math Conference (Last year’s talk can be found here.)  What makes ignite talk sessions great is that you get a taste of what several speakers are passionate about and you get to walk away with at least one ember of at least one of those talks beginning to burn in you!

Special thanks to Graham Fletcher for putting this all together (in pre and post production!).  Graham is top notch, “for sure” (Must be a little of my inner Canadian there).

The featured speakers this year in the order of their talk:

Me (@mikewiernicki) – I didn’t ask to go first. 🙂

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/190360814″>Mike Wiernicki – Ignite Talk (GCTM 2016)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user21534889″>Graham Fletcher</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Katie Breedlove (@KatieBreedlove)

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/190362489″>Katie Breedlove – Ignite Talk (GCTM 2016)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user21534889″>Graham Fletcher</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Jenise Sexton (@MrsJeniseSexton)

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/190364708″>Jenise Sexton – Ignite Talk (GCTM 2016)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user21534889″>Graham Fletcher</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Karla Cwetna (@KCwetna)

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/190381786″>Karla Cwetna – Ignite Talk (GCTM 2016)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user21534889″>Graham Fletcher</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Carla Bidwell (@carla_bidwell)

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/190286621″>Carla Bidwell – Ignite Talk (GCTM 2016)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user21534889″>Graham Fletcher</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Brian Lack (@DrBrianLack)

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/190415942″>Brian Lack – Ignite Talk (GCTM 2016)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user21534889″>Graham Fletcher</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Graham Fletcher (@gfletchy) – The great Emcee’s talk is available elsewhere.  I’ll find it and link it asap.

# Personalized Learning Can’t Trump Content & Pedagogy

The problem I’m seeing with personalized learning (overall and especially as it pertains to math instruction) is the common understandings about what it is, what it can look like, what it shouldn’t look like, and how it works as related to our own learning experiences are fragile at best.

Many school systems, including my own, are looking at personalized learning as a means to improve math instruction, raise math test scores, and increase student engagement. These goals are great and many systems have them in some form or another. However, when personalized learning forces teachers into using sweeping generalized practices that often trump solid content pedagogy, something is drastically wrong.

I don’t think this is necessarily the fault of personalized learning as a concept,  but I do think it is problematic when common understandings become compromised.  These compromised understandings lead to sweeping generalized practices like:

1. No whole group instruction – ever
2. Students should be on a self-paced computer program for personalized learning
3. Teachers have to create new groups of students every day/week to make sure learning is personalized
4. Teachers should do project based learning several times per unit to engage learners
5. Teachers need to use choice boards for every standard they teach.

This is not a definitive list – just what I’ve heard from within my own district over the last few years.

I may not have a response to each of these, but I can point out a few sources in addition to my thoughts:

1.  No whole group instruction – ever – Dan Meyer’s post: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/2014/dont-personalize-learning/  my favorite idea from this is from Mike Caufield: “if there is one thing that almost all disciplines benefit from, it’s structured discussion. It gets us out of our own head, pushes us to understand ideas better. It teaches us to talk like geologists, or mathematicians, or philosophers; over time that leads to us *thinking* like geologists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Structured discussion is how we externalize thought so that we can tinker with it, refactor it, and re-absorb it better than it was before.”

2.  Students should be on a self-paced computer program for personalized learning Personalized learning is not something you get get from the App Store or Google Play  or from any ed tech vendor.

Some other comments from Dan Meyer:  Personalized Learning Software: Fun Like Choosing Your Own Ad Experience  and from Benjamin Riley:  “Effective instruction requires understanding the varying cognitive abilities of students and finding ways to impart knowledge in light of that variation. If you want to call that “personalization,” fine, but we might just also call it “good teaching.” And good teaching can be done in classroom with students sitting in desks in rows, holding pencil and paper, or it can also be done in a classroom with students sitting in beanbags holding iPads and Chromebooks. Whatever the learning environment, the teacher should be responsible for the core delivery of instruction.”

3.  Teachers have to create new groups of students every day/week to make sure learning is personalized – I’m not sure this is the case.  If teachers really know where their students are in their mathematical progressions (lots of ways to do this – portfolios, math journals, student interviews (GloSS and IKAN from New Zealand, etc.)  These types of data are much more effective that computer testing programs because teachers are able to see and hear students’ thinking as well as their answers.  In my opinion, you can’t get more personalized than that!

4.  Teachers should do project based learning several times per unit to engage learners – anyone who has had PBL training knows that 1 per year is a good start!  PBL takes time – to plan, and plan some more (most often with other content areas).  If anyone expects more than one per year or semester initially, it’s time to have some Crucial Conversations!

5.  Teachers need to use choice boards for every standard they teach – student voice and choice does not have to be a choice board.  And really, how much of a choice do students have if we’re giving them all possible choices with no input from them?

To sum up: In order to really improve those goals of improving math instruction, increasing student engagement, and raising math test scores one thing is certain – an investment to increase teacher content and pedagogy knowledge must be at the forefront.  There is no other initiative or math program that will help districts reach these goals more effectively than this!

Hi, my name is Mike… and I love using Desmos with students.

This is not a bad thing at all.  I’m not giving up time with my family to spend on Desmos. It’s just that whenever I think I’ve exhausted all of the ways to use this fantastic tool with students, the Desmos team adds a new activity or game that I can and want to use right away!  These people know how to keep us wanting more!

Here you can find out what Desmos is all about!

Now, for all of you teachers out there that haven’t engaged your students in this amazing math tool, let me move from a user to a pusher.  4 reasons why you should use this amazing tool with your students:

1. It’s completely free!  (not just this first time – all the time)
2. It’s a graphing calculator that works beautifully online or as an app for students to Model with Mathematics – SMP 4.

This is a screenshot of how my son, Connor, used the Desmos Calculator to make sense of transforming quadratic functions.

3.  When you sign up as a teacher (again, for free) you can assign activities and games (yep, they’re all free to use, too) to your students and you can check their progress from your teacher page.

So, beyond the graphing calculator – which is amazing on its own – as a teacher you can assign an activity to your students based on the content they are investigating. Try Central Park  – it’s my favorite activity.  (If you like, you can go to the student page and type in the code qqbm.  I set this up for anyone reading this post. Feel free to use an alias if you like).

And as far as games go, check out Polygraphs.  It’s like the Guess Who? game for math class. Trust me, your students will love it and there are polygraphs for elementary as well as secondary. The polygraphs are all partner games, so students will need to work in pairs.  I’ve even made a few:

Polygraph: Teen Numbers

Polygraph: Inequalities on a Number Line

Polygraph: Geometric Transformations

4.  As you get sucked in to this tool, you may begin to think to yourself, “Boy, I really wish there was an activity for ______.  If only knew how to create an activity for my students to use on Desmos.” That’s taken care of, too, with Activity Builder and Custom Polygraph (and, yep, you guessed it – they’re free to use, too)

And before you begin to doubt whether you can create an online activity or polygraph, the Desmos team has already taken steps to make this extremely teacher friendly.  Before you know it, you’ll have your own Desmos activity published!

Finally, as a great end of year gift, Dan Meyer blogged about the latest from Desmos – Marbleslides.  If this doesn’t get you to use Desmos with your students. . . well, I’m sure they will think of something else, soon. But seriously, try this out.  I have re-learned and deepened my own understandings of mathematics by trying and reflecting on many of these activities and games, and then having my own kids do them (and then they ask me why their teachers aren’t using them – “Can you talk to them, Dad?”).  The conversations will be happening this semester for sure!

But the best part about all of this is that students get to use the calculator to investigate graphs and compare graphs and equations/functions.  They get to notice and wonder about what matters and what changes a graph’s slope, and y-intercept for linear functions and what changes the vertex and roots of parabolas.  They get to investigate periodics and exponentials and rationals and so much more.  They get to engage in activities and games that have components that ask them to reflect on what they’ve learned in the games and activities themselves.  The students are doing the mathematics.

Then, in class, we get engage students in talking about the math they’ve investigated!  How sweet is that?

You see, as great as Desmos is, it can’t take the place of great teaching.  It’s a tool that can help us become better at our craft and help our students gain a deeper understanding of mathematics!  Sounds like a win-win!

So, I guess I don’t have a Desmos math addiction.  Addictions have adverse consequences and I see none of that here!  I just have – as we all do thanks to Desmos – access to a powerful mathematical learning tool!  Thank you Desmos.  I can’t wait to see what’s coming next!

# Feed the Hungry

Kim, my beautiful bride of 16 ½ years, does not like for me to go grocery shopping on my own.  Recently she had a procedure and when I brought her home to rest I told her I would do the grocery shopping while she rested and no one would have to go the following day.  I was surprised by the fact that she was totally against this idea.  When I asked her why she wanted to go with me, she told me that I get hungry when I shop and buy a bunch of things that are not on the list, so if I was going shopping, she had to go too.  We both ended up going later that day.

While I was a bit hurt by her reasoning, I couldn’t deny it.  She was absolutely right.  I get hungry when I shop.  Lots of food, free samples, items I like on sale, items I’ve never tried not on sale, eye catching packaging. . . I can’ help myself!  And there’s no pattern to my binge shopping.  It just depends on the aisles, the samples, and my cravings. This got me to thinking if everyone does this.  I think so.

So what does this have to do with math teaching?

Bear with me for a bit.  I started a new position in January as Math Teacher on Special Assignment for our district.  My focus is working with middle and high schools.  I’ve taught elementary school, middle school, high school and even some college courses for pre-service teachers, so I’m comfortable working with students at all of these levels.  But when I started I just wasn’t sure how teachers would react to the support I was offering.  Would they want feedback?  Would they want support in their planning?  Would they want a model lesson or to co-teach a lesson?

As I began my work with these teachers I thought about the different kinds of teachers I would encounter as I move from school to school.  I determined, through my interactions with many that teachers seem to fit into one of three categories:

The bottomless pit.  These teachers are hungry all the time!  They ask for feedback, and resources, plan for co-teaching lessons, conference, and do just about anything asked of them.

The nibbler.  These teachers are willing to take a taste, if it’s not too spicy or too bland.  They want new strategies and will try something if they can immediately see how it will fit within their classroom without dropping something that’s “tried and true”.  If they don’t shop in that aisle, they sure won’t take a taste.

The Pepto-Bismols.  These teachers just ate a three course meal with desert and coffee.  The only thing these teachers might want is an antacid.

At first glance, you may choose one to work with over another, but read on.  There’s more to these categories than meets the eye.

• The bottomless pits are always eating, but they may be eating things that lead them away from the aisles containing the foods for best practice. So it’s my job to make sure to steer these teachers down the aisle for the food that they need and  They may be devouring number talks, but they may be giving speed tests.  They may be sitting down to the table for a 3-Act Task, but they may not be letting their students come to the table of wonder to eat some for themselves.  Tricky stuff here.  We all have our favorite junk foods, but if it’s all we’re eating we are going to have a lot of problems down the line.

• The nibblers are kind of tricky. They’re a bit pickier about the food they eat.  Most of the time, these teachers just need an alternative, something that might replace what they’re currently eating.  Like the bottomless pits, these teachers could be in the wrong aisle and nibbling just because it’s easier than walking to the next aisle – even when the food over there is SO much better!
• The Pepto-Bismols are my favorites. These are the ones who think they cannot possibly eat another bite.  They don’t think they’re still hungry, but deep down they are still craving.  They’ve eaten and their plates are still full.  It’s time to steer these teachers toward the pharmacy aisles.  If we can ease the bloating (often caused by lack of standards-based diet), maybe we can slip in a small piece of gourmet math food here and there (Open Middle anyone?).  When they realize their hunger it isn’t long before these teachers are feeding others!

Ultimately, we all need to help our peers in this global math grocery store realize that they are hungry, feed them a little bit of the math goodness, then teach them how to shop for themselves.  You see, all of us are hungry.  Some of us are just walking down the wrong grocery aisles.

I’m still not allowed to grocery shop alone and I’m ok with that – as long as I can be a Mathmart associate, it’s all good!

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!

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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.