It’s important to teach our children to ask questions, about math and about life. As I wrote in my series about homeschooling with math anxiety, “School textbooks only ask questions for which they know the answer. When homeschoolers learn to think like mathematicians, we will ask a different type of question.”
I have often heard that, “Good teachers borrow, great teachers steal.” So today, I am stealing one of Marilyn Burns’s most famous problems. She takes this problem to the streets, and various adults give lots of different answers. When I’ve used it in workshops, even among a mathy crowd, I get lots of different answers, too.
What’s your answer?
“A man buys a truck for $600, then sells it for $700. Later, he decides to buy it back again and pays $800 dollars. However…”
My favorite playful math lessons rely on adult/child conversation — a proven method for increasing a child’s reasoning skills. What better way could there be to do math than snuggled up on a couch with your little one, or side by side at the sink while your middle-school student helps you wash the dishes, or passing the time on a car ride into town?
As soon as your little ones can count past five, start giving them simple, oral story problems to solve: “If you have a cookie and I give you two more cookies, how many cookies will you have then?”
The fastest way to a child’s mind is through the taste buds. Children can easily visualize their favorite foods, so we use mainly edible stories at first. Then we expand our range, adding stories about other familiar things: toys, pets, trains.
Alex and Leon enjoyed their baby sister, but they were amazed at how much work taking care of a baby could be. One particularly colicky night, everyone in the family took turns holding the baby, rocking the baby, patting her back, and walking her around before she finally succumbed to sleep.
Then Alex collapsed on the couch, and Leon sank into the recliner. They teased each other with these story problems.
Remember the Math Adventurer’s Rule: Figure it out for yourself! Whenever I give a problem in an Alexandria Jones story, I will try to post the answer soon afterward. But don’t peek! If I tell you the answer, you miss out on the fun of solving the puzzle. So if you haven’t worked these problems yet, go back to the original posts. If you’re stuck, read the hints. Then go back and try again. Figure them out for yourself — and then check the answers just to prove that you got them right.
This post offers hints and answers to puzzles from these blog posts:
The elementary grades 1-4 laid the foundations, the basics of arithmetic: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. In grade 5, students are expected to master most aspects of fraction math and begin working with the rest of the Math Monsters: decimals, ratios, and percents (all of which are specialized fractions).
Word problems grow ever more complex as well, and learning to explain (justify) multi-step solutions becomes a first step toward writing proofs.
In 4th grade, math problems take a large step up on the difficulty scale. Students are more mature and can read and follow more complex stories. Multi-step word problems become the new norm, and proportional relationships (like “three times as many”) show up frequently. As the year progresses, fractions grow to be a dominant theme.
As a math teacher, one of my top goals is that my students learn to solve word problems. Arithmetic is (relatively) easy, but many children struggle in applying it to “real world” situations.
In previous posts, I introduced the problem-solving tools of word algebra and bar diagrams, either of which can help students organize the information in a word problem and translate it into a mathematical calculation. The earlier posts in this series are:
A homeschooling friend who avoided algebra in high school, trying to help her son cope with a subject she never understood, posted: “Help! Our answer is different from the book’s.” Here is the homework problem:
Josh earned $72 less than his sister who earned $93 more than her mom. If they earned a total of $504, how much did Josh earn?
What can you do when you are stumped by a math problem? Not just any old homework exercise, but one of those tricky word problems that can so easily confuse anyone?
The difference between an “exercise” and a “problem” will vary from one person to another, even within a single class. Even so, this easy to remember, 4-step approach can help students at any grade level. In my math classes, I give each child a copy to keep handy:
In honor of my Google searchers, to demonstrate the power of bar diagrams to model ratio problems, and just because math is fun…
Eccentric Aunt Ethel leaves her Christmas tree up year ’round, but she changes the decorations for each passing season. This July, Ethel wanted a patriotic theme of flowers, ribbons, and colored lights.
When she stretched out her three light strings (100 lights each) to check the bulbs, she discovered that several were broken or burned-out. Of the lights that still worked, the ratio of red bulbs to white ones was 7:3. She had half as many good blue bulbs as red ones. But overall, she had to throw away one out of every 10 bulbs.
How many of each color light bulb did Ethel have?
Before reading further, pull out some scratch paper. How would you solve this problem? How would you teach it to a middle school student?
Andrei Toom calls this an “extended version” of a talk he gave a few years ago at the Swedish Mathematical Society. At 159 pages [2010 updated version is 98 pages], I would call it a book. Whatever you call it, it’s a must-read for math teachers:
Main Thesis: Word problems are very valuable in teaching mathematics not only to master mathematics, but also for general development. Especially valuable are word problems solved with minimal scolarship, without algebra, even sometimes without arithmetics, just by plain common sense. The more naive and ingenuous is solution, the more it provides the child’s contact with abstract reality and independence from authority, the more independent and creative thinker the child becomes.
Han Solo was doing some needed maintenance on the Millennium Falcon. He spent 3/5 of his money upgrading the hyperspace motivator. He spent 3/4 of the remainder to install a new blaster cannon. If he spent 450 credits altogether, how much money did he have left?
[Modified from a word problem in Singapore Primary Math 5B. Stop and think about how you would solve it before reading further.]
What can you do when you are stumped? Too many students sit and stare at the page, waiting for inspiration to strike — and when the solution doesn’t crack their heads open and step out, fully formed, they complain: “Math is too hard!”
So this year I have given my Math Club students a couple of mini-posters to put up on the wall above their desk, or wherever they do their math homework. The first gives four questions to ask yourself as you think through a math problem, and the second is a list of problem-solving strategies.
The ability to solve word problems ranks high on any math teacher’s list of goals. How can I teach my students to solve math problems? I must help them develop the ability to translate “real world” situations into mathematical language.
In two previousposts, I introduced the problem-solving tools algebra and bar diagrams. These tools help our students organize the information in a word problem and translate it into a mathematical calculation.
Working Math Problems with Poor Richard
This time I will demonstrate these problem-solving tools in action with a series of 3rd-grade problems based on the Singapore Primary Math series, level 3A. For your reading pleasure, I have translated the problems into the universe of a well-written biography of Ben Franklin, Poor Richard by James Daugherty.
Do you ever take your kids’ math tests? It helps me remember what it is like to be a student. I push myself to work quickly, trying to finish in about 1/3 the allotted time, to mimic the pressure students feel. And whenever I do this, I find myself prone to the same stupid mistakes that students make.
Even teachers are human.
In this case, it was a multi-step word problem, a barrage of information to stumble through. In the middle of it all sat this statement:
…and there were 3/4 as many dragons as gryphons…
My eyes saw the words, but my mind heard it this way:
…and 3/4 of them were dragons…
What do you think — did I get the answer right? Of course not! Every little word in a math problem is important, and misreading even the smallest word can lead a student astray. My mental glitch encompassed several words, and my final tally of mythological creatures was correspondingly screwy.
But here is the more important question: Can you explain the difference between these two statements?
The ability to solve word problems ranks high on any math teacher’s list of goals. How can I teach my students to reason their way through math problems? I must help my students develop the ability to translate “real world” situations into mathematical language.
In a previous post, I analyzed two problem-solving tools we can teach our students: algebra and bar diagrams. These tools help our students organize the information in a word problem and translate it into a mathematical calculation.
Now I want to demonstrate these problem-solving tools in action with a series of 2nd grade problems, based on the Singapore Primary Math series, level 2A. For your reading pleasure, I have translated the problems into the universe of one of our family’s favorite read-aloud books, Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
Most young students solve story problems by the flash of insight method: When they read the problem, they know almost instinctively how to solve it. This is fine for problems like:
There are 7 children. 2 of them are girls. How many boys are there?
As problems get more difficult, however, that flash of insight becomes less reliable, so we find our students staring blankly at their paper or out the window. They complain, “I don’t know what to do. It’s too hard!”
We need to give our students a tool that will help them when insight fails.
I did fine on the 3rd-grade problems, but I stumbled a bit on the 4/5th-grade “How much sugar…” problem. The toy cars were tricky, but manageable. I misread the problem with the chocolate and sweets at first — I think of chocolates as a sub-category of sweets, but in this problem they are totally different. (Perhaps “sweets” are what I would call “hard candy”?) Finally, I had to resort to algebra for the last two Grade 6 questions.
A wooden cube that measures 3 cm along each edge is painted red. The painted cube is then cut into 1-cm cubes as shown above. How many of the 1-cm cubes do not have red paint on any face?
And then he challenges us as teachers:
Do you have any ideas for extending the problem?
If so, then jot them down.
This is strategically placed at the end of a right-hand page, and I was able to resist turning to read on. I came up with a list of 15 other questions that could have been asked — some of which will be used in future Alexandria Jones stories. Lechner wrote only seven elementary-level problems, and yet his list had at least two questions that I had not considered. How many can you come up with?
Let’s play around with a middle-school/junior high word problem:
Cimorene spent an afternoon cleaning and organizing the dragon’s treasure. One fourth of the items she sorted was jewelry. 60% of the remainder were potions, and the rest were magic swords. If there were 48 magic swords, how many pieces of treasure did she sort in all?
[Modified from a story problem in Singapore Primary Math 6B. Think about how you would solve it before reading further.]
We continue to plan our co-op courses for next fall. Some of the classes I had hoped for will not happen, and my children are going to have to make some tough choices between the remaining topics. Unfortunately, they have not yet mastered the ability to be in two classrooms at once.
I have three math courses to plan, and I think I will focus as much as I can on teaching math through problems, even at the elementary level. These are once-a-week enrichment classes for homeschooled students, so I assume they have a “normal” math program at home. I want to introduce a few topics they might not otherwise see, to deepen their understanding of the topics they have studied, and to give them a taste of that “Aha!” feeling that comes from conquering a challenging problem. Has anybody done something like this, and can you recommend some good resources?
[Rescued from my old blog.]
I love story problems. Like a detective, I enjoy sifting out clues and solving the mystery. But what do you do when you come across a real stumper? Acting out story problems could make a one-page assignment take all week.
You don’t have to bake a pie to study fractions or jump off a cliff to learn gravity. Use your imagination instead. The following suggestions will help you find the clues you need to solve the case.
You can begin to teach your children algebraic thinking in preschool, if you treat algebra as a problem-solving game. Young children are masters at solving problems, at figuring things out. They constantly explore their world, piecing together the mystery of how things work. For preschool children, mathematical concepts are just part of life’s daily adventure. Their minds grapple with understanding the three-ness of three blocks or three fingers or one raisin plus two more raisins make three.
Wise homeschooling parents put those creative minds to work. They build a foundation for algebra with games that require the same problem-solving skills children need for abstract math: the ability to visualize a situation and to apply common sense.