Learning lessons with my students is probably one of my favorite things about teaching.
We have been working on puzzle problems in math, specifically those that help us practice operational facts (something my grades 3/4 need) and challenge us to think differently about numbers.
Grant Wiggins wrote a post about The Problem of Non-Problems in Math Programs a couple of years ago that I recently re-discovered. As I plan learning opportunities for my students, I am constantly reminded of his words in this post. So many math programs have “problem-solving” listed as a high level goal for students; yet so few math programs ask students to solve anything other than equations. Equations are not problems. In fact, I find that my students are pretty good at solving equations I put in front of them, but they can’t come up with an equation when I put a problem in front of them.
My solution to helping them learn to become better problem-solvers is to give them a lot of math “puzzles” to solve. The math geek in me LOVES these puzzles. My students… not so much.
Today, I heard a lot of whining from my kids– kids who are attending a school like Anastasis because they want to learn, not just do worksheets. The whining sounded like:
Another puzzle? Auuuggghh!
Can’t you just give us a hint?
This is so hard!
So, after a bit of frustration on their part (the math puzzle) and mine (the whining), I gathered them together for a pep talk.
“Of course this is hard. It’s supposed to be challenging. If it were easy, it would show what you already know, rather than what you are about to learn.
You’ve already shown me what you know. I want you to show me what you’re LEARNING. Once you learn how to solve the puzzle, you’re going to feel pretty great about what you accomplished, right?”
They all agreed and then set off to finish their challenge.
I have to admit that I kind of borrowed that pep talk from Tom Hanks in A League Of Their Own (my favorite baseball movie):
Dottie: It just got too hard.
Jimmy: It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great!
Maybe that’s how I was taught to learn… that “the hard” is what makes learning great. I’ve always loved puzzles, brain teasers, problems to solve. My favorite teachers were the ones who said “figure it out” and challenged me.
I’m guessing, though, that we (educators) don’t always provide opportunities for kids that make learning great. Giving students work that is difficult only for the sake of being difficult isn’t going to help kids learn anything. [That's my problem with policy wonks who overuse the word "rigor."] On the other hand, giving kids work that is mindless and “easy” does nothing to help them stretch themselves.
This is our second year in our school, where inquiry and problem-solving are foundational concepts… yet, I still find myself occasionally stepping in front of the kids and giving them questions to answer, instead of problems to solve (this is part of a Roger Lewin quote that has been a part of my email signature for many years).
I am a huge advocate of our school philosophy, but it’s so easy to fall back into those habits of how I was taught to teach.
My learning challenge as their teacher is to remember to make the learning great, to challenge them to think and wonder. It’s not always easy to find opportunities for them to learn in this style, so I have to keep working harder to make it happen.
I guess this is my plug for problem-based learning… challenges that take children to the brink of frustration, where they have to struggle just a bit, but aren’t so overwhelming that they can’t ever find solutions. In the midst of learning to solve the problems, kids are also learning perseverance, using their creativity, and analyzing what works and what doesn’t work. And as their teacher, I have to persevere, use my creativity, and analyze what works and doesn’t work FOR THEM.
That’s pretty great, isn’t it?