# Ep. 15: Problem Solving with a Twist

September 29, 2020 Pam Harris Episode 15
Math is Figure-Out-Able with Pam Harris
Ep. 15: Problem Solving with a Twist
Chapters
Math is Figure-Out-Able with Pam Harris
Ep. 15: Problem Solving with a Twist
Sep 29, 2020 Episode 15
Pam Harris

Have you ever tried teaching your students the steps to approaching word problems, but your students still struggled? Pam and Kim discuss a better way to help kids tackle math problems. They explain why if you want the best for your students, the acronyms and problem annotation methods of the past simply won't cut it. Help your students live the problem solving process, and not just memorize it.

Talking Points

• The dangers of teaching "Problem Solving Methods"
• How to engage students in mathematics so that problem solving is a natural outcome
• How to run students through numberless word problems

Resources: Brain Bushart's Numberless Word Problems

Have you ever tried teaching your students the steps to approaching word problems, but your students still struggled? Pam and Kim discuss a better way to help kids tackle math problems. They explain why if you want the best for your students, the acronyms and problem annotation methods of the past simply won't cut it. Help your students live the problem solving process, and not just memorize it.

Talking Points

• The dangers of teaching "Problem Solving Methods"
• How to engage students in mathematics so that problem solving is a natural outcome
• How to run students through numberless word problems

Resources: Brain Bushart's Numberless Word Problems

Pam Harris :

Hey fellow mathematicians. Welcome to the podcast where math is Figure-Out-Able. I'm Pam.

Kim Montague :

And I'm Kim.

Pam Harris :

And we're here to suggest that mathematizing is not about mimicking or rote memorizing. But it's about thinking and reasoning; about creating and using mental relationships: empowering teachers and students. We answer the question, if not algorithms, then what? In today's episode, we talk about the problem solving process with a twist.

Kim Montague :

Recently, Pam got a question that sparked a lot of conversation between the two of us. And since that's kind of the point of the podcast, we thought we talked about it today. So here's the message: "Hi, Pam, I have a question for you about providing all classes from kindergarten, year six, with a visual on how to solve word problems. So if a student didn't know where to begin to solve such a problem, they would look at the chart and then work out what they might use to do or do to solve their task. What are your thoughts? The one I was given had step one, understand the problem. Step two, make a plan and so on. It was designed by George Polya. Is there any research out there about giving students a chart to work out problems?"

Pam Harris :

Okay, so that's the message that I got. And here's sort of my reply. The short answer is, sure. But I wouldn't spend a lot of time or money on it, and I wouldn't expect great results from it. Okay, so, Kim, when we were first talking about this, we went back and forth a little bit, and I asked you if you knew who George Polya is, and you weren't sure. So tell us about George Polya.

Kim Montague :

Yeah, I learned so much from you. Dr. Polyais a Hungarian mathematician. And he taught in Zurich, and Stanford. And he had a book that he was known for called How to Solve It. And he was also known for his efforts in the wake of Sputnik in 1957, to teach math teachers how to teach math. So apparently, he was regarded as the father of the modern emphasis in math education on problem solving. And he had a four step problem solving process. And here it is, step one, understand the problem. Step two, devise a plan. Step three, carry out the plan. And step four, look back. So as you were telling me about this guy, it reminded me of a time when I was in the classroom, and we had a six hour staff development, where we brought in this woman, and she did a training for us all about her specific problem solving process. And she introduced it, she walked us through examples, we all did some math together. And we left that day with a set of a class set of cards, that we were to hand our students. And every time they solved any kind of problem, they were apparently supposed to walk through this process. And they were required to use it every time and I struggled, I struggled with that quite a bit.

Pam Harris :

You loved it, you love spending six hours and making the cards. So I'm also around the same time, there was a school in the district that said, Pam, we need you. We have this, this thing and you know, can you please? So I booked out some time, blocked out some time, and went to the school and met the principal, all the people were there, the math coach, heads of grade levels, you know, we sat down and everybody was really serious. And they kind of ask for what that professional development person did for for you. They said, We want you to come in. And we want you to set up a problem solving process, we really think that our kids are struggling solving math problems. And so we need to help them like with this, these steps, we need to give them the steps that they can clearly and the steps they really had decided that they wanted to underline and highlight certain words and pick out different things, like do things to the numbers, and then off to the side, they were going to rewrite part of the problem anyway, they had this whole system set up and they wanted me to come in and work with the teachers to make sure that the teachers really understood the whole process on and on and on and on. And I was a little stymied. Not because I didn't know what to say, well, kind of didn't know how to say it... Because I wanted to be respectful of the fact that they were you know, very honestly coming at the fact that their students were having a hard time solving math problems. So you and I began to continue to talk about like, what do we do in those situations is giving kids this problem solving process? Is that the be and end all is that the answer to helping kids be able to solve math problems better?

Kim Montague :

Yeah. So actually I gotta tell you since we're on the topic today, of Problem Solving methods if you will. I searched, just google search, some acronyms you want to hear?

Pam Harris :

Yeah, go for it.

Kim Montague :

All right. All right. So you might be doing the STEP method or the PAWS method like like, animal pause. You could do the ROCKS method because math rocks you could be doing CUBES or FUSE or CLEAR or GRASS.

Pam Harris :

Hey, at least that was sort of mathy you know like graphs like x&y

Kim Montague :

No grass like green grass outside.

Pam Harris :

Ah, it's not even math. Okay.

Kim Montague :

RIDES because a problem solver rides through problem solving.

Pam Harris :

Ah

Kim Montague :

LOVE

Pam Harris :

Yah, we need more love

Kim Montague :

Rice.

Pam Harris :

Rice? Rice, like rest ice compression elevation.

Kim Montague :

Yeah, I didn't really get what the what the steps were.

Pam Harris :

I've sprained my ankle a few times. I know that one. Rucksak Oh, rucksack ok okay, that's good. Yeah

Kim Montague :

Isn't rucksack like a carrying thing?

Pam Harris :

It's like a backpack yah.

Kim Montague :

Yeah, yeah. And, oh, gee, like 11 million other options. So here's the question I have, how are kids supposed to know what to do? When they like rise or step one year, and then they rucksack the next? Right? That's a problem

Pam Harris :

I mean so that's why the whole school should get on the same bandwagon. And they should all use this. I'm kidding. Okay, so is the four step thing bad or five to eight step, with the circle and underlining, is it bad? Or any of these bad? They're not bad. We just don't find them particularly helpful. So if anything, I think you could have a discussion with students about Polya's problem solving steps, I think you could hang it on the wall, and you'd still get kind of all you're going to get out of it. So why? If kids are already successful at problem solving, here's the upshot. If they're already successful at problem solving, they don't actually need this. And so if we take a lot of time, or spending money to create individual charts, it's not worth it for those kids. They basically don't need it. So it doesn't help. And then it becomes drudgery. So we have basically have a group of students who are already thinking they read the problem, they're already really clear with it, they need to figure out what the problem is asking. And so when we say to them, in order to be successful, you must follow these steps. They're like in the head going, I don't think so. Like I've been solving these problems just fine. And so it becomes drudgery for those kids. They don't want to solve math problems, because they know that they're going to have to do all the things like all the underlining, circling, and ...instead of just focusing on the math, so I remember my personal son came home one day, and he said, mom, look at this, and he had probably the chart that you learned how to do.

Kim Montague :

Oh I'm sure.

Pam Harris :

Yeah, because he was at your school, and he came home and he said, Mom, can I just do the math, like, what is all this hoopla that I have to sort of go and jump through all these steps, and it's so boring, and it's tedious. And it basically became drudgery. And I just looked at him and smiled. I said, Yeah, just just do the math. Just you focus on the math and, and, But mom, I'm gonna get wrong. And I was like, you know, what, sweetheart, do the math. I'll talk to your teacher, whatever. Like at that point, those marks don't care, the grade, neither here I care about that grade, we really care about the math, we care about him thinking and reasoning about what's happening in the math problems. And he was having fun doing that. I didn't want to turn math into drudgery for him. Okay, so you might say, but Pam, what about the kids who aren't already successful at problem solving? Like they need it? Right? Well, here's the upshot. It actually doesn't seem to help them either. So it's not really worth it for them either. What we find is that students spend all of their time and mental energy doing the things underlining and highlighting and picking out rewriting the problem in their own words. And and what they don't do spend their time and energy actually thinking about the math

Kim Montague :

Right and the best you'll ever get. Is that now that they've made sense of the problem, but they're exhausted, because they've had to do all these extra things to get to that point, right, they haven't even begun to solve the problem. And by giving them these cards, We're in a sense saying that we have to tell them that a part of the process is to actually solve the problem, or could they just solve the problem?

Pam Harris :

Yeah, exactly.

Kim Montague :

So, Pam, what does help?

Pam Harris :

Yeah, it's a good question, because we definitely have students that are struggling solving math problems. And we have honest teachers and administrators that really want to help students in the problem solving process. We really want to help students be able to understand math problems and have confidence in attacking and solving them. So what does help with all students? Number one is teaching real math so that when students are using what they know to solve problems, they're not trying to reach into rote memory and mimic memorize steps, then they're actually just confidently Like attacking the problem, they know, hey, I can read this problem, I can think about it. And I can actually use real math what I know to solve the problem. But two it's also helpful to solve problems with students periodically get the group together, and make the thinking visible. So have class discussions about the thinking that's happening as students are solving the problems, make the process come alive for your students spend time figuring out the questions you've been answering, again, make it out loud with students with and have the students do most of the talking. What are you guys thinking about? What are you realizing? So that as the students are doing this out loud together, students realize how important it is to understand what the question is asking. They sort of understand that the steps in the problem solving process that it comes alive for them becomes a part of what they're actually doing. Instead of putting all the emphasis on this memorizing these steps to do. While you're doing that use important models to represent students strategies, like open number lines and arrays, ratio tables, so that the thinking is visible, that it's more discussable and more take-up-able. In other words, it's much more helpful to help students experience the problem solving process organically than it is to just give them a chart and another series of steps for them to memorize and things to do.

Kim Montague :

Yeah, absolutely. If you haven't already heard of our friend, Brian Bushart, you should check out his numberless word problems, where he suggests removing the numbers and the question in the problems, and then doing a slow reveal to help students make sense of the situation.

Pam Harris :