Get the Answer First

This is Day 12 of 31 Days of Math Learning Success. Follow all the days here and check out others that are writing for 31 days here.
Step 1 to solving a word problem is "get the answer," not, "define the variables."
“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.”
~Bruce Lee

My favorite way to solve a word problem is to get the answer first.

But most textbooks start with: “Define your variables.”

Nobody does that. They think about the problem and then figure it out. Or at least estimate the answer.

Once they have a pretty good idea, then they figure out how to put it on paper so it looks nice.

We graph this way!

When we graph something that’s crazy, we can “estimate” what it looks like before getting it on paper. We have fancy math ways to answer questions like:

  • How many humps does it have?
  • Does it go really high or really low?
  • Is it nice and smooth?
  • Does it jump around?

Maybe we should start teaching this way with word problems.

Do it Singapore Math style.

The Singaporeans started doing it in their textbooks. That’s why we’re moving in that direction with the curriculum in the U.S. The general steps for solving a word problem this way are:

  1. Do some drawing on paper to help you think about what the problem “looks like.”
  2. Figure out the answer to the problem.
  3. Assign variables and create equations that match your drawings and your answer.

Of course that’s an oversimplification of the method. But you get the gist.

Fight out some possible answers first – don’t be afraid to guess and be wrong. Then work out the details.

If all else fails, skip the fancy math.

In real life you need the answer. You don’t need the equations that got you there.

Don’t fret if you get the answer and you still can’t figure out how to do it the teacher’s way. It’s about learning, not getting the grade. You’ll likely figure out the teacher’s way in the future.


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