Find The Problem

“Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” Roger Lewin

It’s been about 12 years now that I’ve had that quote on my email signature. I’m sure I’ve tweeted it out more than a few times as well. Oddly, I can’t make myself change that quote to something else, because I still see that as a major issue in education today.

In my grades 3/4 classroom, I have multiple levels of competency in math. We often start our time in math with similar activities, but then move on to Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, etc. to ensure that the students understand the concepts, are able to find success in what they know and are able to do, but also are challenged to move up to something more difficult.

What I’ve been finding all year is that, regardless of their mastery or lack of mastery in specific concepts, word problems stump them all.

As their teacher, I need to help them find strategies for solving word problems, so we put on our “Math Detectives” hats and started looking at clues. They found that certain words are red flags for certain operations and then created some fun posters, sorted clue words by operations, etc.

That helped, but only a little.

I realized my kids were fixated… perhaps even obsessed with finding the answers. When they are unsure of an answer, they just start guessing and throwing out more answers.

I tell them, “Whoa! Back the truck up here. You don’t even know what the problem is. How can you be answering it already?”

So in our math sessions this week, we’re practicing finding the problem. We have discussed how some problems seem fairly simple and you can see the answer right away in your head, but if you miss one little detail, you’re not even solving the correct problem. How can you find the proper solution if you don’t even understand what the problem is?

We have this same approach to our inquiry block, our reading and writing activities — probably most of the learning activities we do every day. Many times, we learn that there aren’t really answers to some problems. Other times, we discover that some answers that “everyone knows” as specific facts aren’t actually correct. I love that my kids get into the detective role and really think through their discoveries.

This has me thinking about education in general. Everyone and their brother thinks they know how to “fix” education right now. I see all sorts of solutions thrown out there: more testing, more school days/hours, younger teachers, older teachers, Common Core Standards,  flipped classrooms, Khan Academy, passion-based learning…

There are so many answers, I can’t even post them all.

I’m wondering, though, if anyone really has spent time on the problem. What exactly is THE  problem?  Or problems? There are as many theories as there are solutions already suggested, I’m sure. And don’t get me wrong, I think there are troubling issues in the way many children are being educated right now. However, I think most of the proposed solutions aren’t really solving the right problems.

I guess I’m just worried that we’re approaching “fixing” education like my students do with their math problems. Throwing out a bunch of answers before really looking deeply at the problem rarely solves anything properly.

We all have our own agenda. We all have our pet peeves about what kids don’t know, but should. If, however, we were able to come together, free of our agenda and pet peeves, and talk about what is really important for the education of children…

… how would we define that problem?

My dad loves to say, “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.”

I’m going to revise that to, “Don’t fix it until you really know what’s broken.”  So let’s start there.

Thanks for thinking along with me.


2 thoughts on “Find The Problem

  1. Great post Michelle. I always believe that the problem is that education is run by government and government is run by politics. Politics is mostly motivated by influence and money. Education is about people and that conflicts with every aspect of politics. Testing is a great example. Billions of dollars are spent on standardized testing and it will never end because it makes too much money and holds to much influence over politicians. That money could be used better for training, more teachers, more technology, and other things but it never will. We just have to focus on the kids and remember we do what we do for them.

  2. I believe there are lots of problems in education and they’re all called students. If we focus on what the student is all about — not what we want him or her to be, not what we think that student should be, or what little piece of minutia we think he or she should know — but who each of those individual students are and would like to know RIGHT NOW, we can solve all those young problems and likely ignore all the old ones.

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