While watching Dan’s TED Talk about math curriculum makeover, he said something that really struck me. He said that one symptom of doing math reasoning wrong in the classroom was that students had an aversion to word problems and they were constantly looking for a formula to apply. This really hit home with me because I worked at Mathnasium for awhile as a tutor, helping students with their math homework and giving them extra problems to do based on the curriculum they were working on. More often than not, as soon as a student saw a problem that had any sort of words in it as well as numbers, they would freak out, say it was too hard and not even read the whole thing through before giving up. This is what they see:

Students get caught up with the words, can’t figure out what they are supposed to be doing and then immediately give up at it. The other thing that Dan Meyer mentioned in his TED talk was about how students are also constantly looking for a formula. I saw this as well at Mathnasium, where students would learn a formula, learn how to apply it in the example problem, then they wouldn’t even bother to read what the other problems were asking, but instead took the numbers and put them into the formula the way they finished the first problem. This is not because they don’t want to learn math but because they are given the simple problems for examples in the textbook, and then when asked to apply that knowledge, they can’t because they have only seen the easy, “plug it in” version of the problem. Dan Meyer equates this to the “22 minute Sitcom problem,” where characters in modern sitcoms are given a problem they can solve in 22 minutes. If you continuously give examples to students that are short “plug it in” problems, they will expect that to be the same for the rest of the problems to follow. Then, when confronted with actual math problems where they have to think harder about things, they get frustrated and give up when the “plug it in” solution doesn’t work or ends up giving the wrong answer.

One thing that Dan Meyer said in his talk was that we only give students the problems and expect them to answer it, we don’t involve them in the actual problem-making process. This is extremely important to let students find their own problems and then solve them. The exploration part of math is so much more important than teachers are letting on and teaching in schools today (now this could probably be traced back to the need to teach to the test, and have students perform well on standardized tests, which is another whole topic in and of itself). Students need to feel in control of what they are learning and be interested in the problems that they are solving in math. There are so many people that have this big aversion or fear to math, but why? Because they were taught to memorize formulas and apply the numbers in the formulas, but then sometimes this didn’t work, so then it becomes frustrating. The more involved we let students become in their learning, I think that they will feel more invested in learning. They will want to solve the problems, because it’s problems they came up with or are interested about, not just problems out of a textbook or off the internet, where the answers are easily “google-able” (is that a real word?). This could work in any subject, not just math. I think students will become more excited about learning and want to be invested.

The thing I liked the most about Dan Meyer’s talk was when he took the problem from the textbook and made it his own. He got rid of walking students through the problem (most of them expect this, along with the formula) and also put a real life picture and video into the problem to get students interested in finding out the answer to the problem. He gets all students involved, allows students to guess the answer to the problem from watching the movie, and he also lets them watch the whole movie to get the right answer after figuring it out. Students get to build the problem on their own and come up with the steps needed to solve it on their own. Bringing in the multimedia aspect of the problem also brings in the students who think math is all about numbers and is boring. They can see the real life application of the problem and will want to know the final answer/outcome!

I want to incorporate this into my classroom. Having a multimedia math classroom that applies problems to the real world and draws students in to understand why math is important to our lives and that math can be interesting. I want to be a teacher not because I want students to LOVE math the way I do, but because I want them to stop being afraid of it, and know they can conquer any problem that gets thrown their way if they just stop and think about alllll the previous knowledge they have and apply it to the current problem.

You mentioned, “Students need to feel in control of what they are learning and be interested in the problems that they are solving in math.” …very true for all subjects. Using media to present problems also prevent our students from simply Googeling the answer…or pasting the question into Wolfram Alpha.com and allow the site to answer the question. Meyer’s advise is timely now that more and more kids are relying on the internet to cheat on homework created pre-internet. Great post:)

I remember my mother getting me a very hip “new math” type book in 7th or 8th grade, and I hated it. It wanted me to understand the reasoning behind the formulas and figure them out on my own. I begged her for a boring textbook that just told me the formula and let me memorize it. Looking back on it, in light of your post here, I completely identify with the kids who grown at word problems. It’s easy to memorize a formula and plug it into a problem, it’s hard to learn why the formula works and figure out how to make the word problems make sense. Your students will be luck to have a teacher like you challenge them to really understand the material instead of just memorizing it.