Presenting the Problem… some new thoughts (for me!)

I watched a video the other day that made me think.  It was a video from one of Cathy Fosnot’s units (anything from her tends to make me think in a way I never have before) and showed a grade 6 teacher presenting a problem to his class.  He started off telling the students about his kitten and the special kitten cat food he needs to eat.  He told them about two different stores in his neighborhood that sold this cat food, but had two different pricing “deals”.  The teacher said he needed the students’ help to find out which was better.  Right off the bat, I like this approach.  Relating a problem to the teacher’s or students’ world is definitely a point towards engagement (if it is authentic, or at least seems authentic).  But the part of the video that made me think was what happened next:  The teacher paused for a moment after presenting the problem and then students, without being prompted or asked, started raising their hands.  When he called on them they proceeded to talk about the strategy that was coming to their mind about how to solve the problem.  That was kind of cool!  It not only gave the teacher a look into some of the initial ideas the students had, but also let other students gain an entry point.  In fact, after a few students had said their brief and rough strategy thoughts, the teacher asked “Does everyone feel they have a place they can enter this problem?”

I’ve never done that before! I think I’ve always thought that it would “give away” too much, or lead kids in a direction they might not have gone otherwise.  But I love that it gives everyone a starting point!  I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be appropriate with every problem, but I am excited to try it with a few problems and get a feel for when it works best.

On the same note, I have been thinking about the importance of making sure kids understand what a question is asking before sending them off to work.  I’ve realized recently that the contexts that seem very familiar to us as adults, aren’t necessary as obvious to students.  I’ve been looking for strategies to help students with this and here are some things I’ve seen.

-presenting the problem and then asking students to turn and talk to their partner about what the problem is asking.

-asking students to take a minute and write down any questions they have about the problem (the teacher than has them take those questions to their partner and they answer them together)

-taking specific words and asking a student in the class to explain what it is (e.g. what is orange concentrate anyway?)

I think literacy teachers call this “decoding”.  I feel like mathematics teachers are doing that twice: we need to make sure that students understand the language and context of the problem and we also want them to have an entry point somewhere to get into the rich mathematics of the problem.  And then there’s also Dan Meyer’s philosophy about engaging through perplexity…. we need to get that in there too! So much to think about!


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