How to Know When a Kid is Confused

When Cassy over at Singapore Math Source commented on my post 7 Ways to Wrangle a Word Problem, it made me think.

Her question to me was, “Why wouldn’t you just rewrite the problem to focus on the appropriate concept?” She suggested that having students restate the problem in their own words without numbers would have them demonstrate that they know what is being asked of them.

Here is the original problem:

The Beebo bird lives in two places in the world. Some live in Texas and some live in Greece. Greek Beebos are about 20 inches high and weigh around seven pounds. There are about thirty-nine thousand Greek Beebos. The total weight of all the beebos in the world is 500,000 pounds. How much do the Texas Beebos weigh altogether?

Here is her suggested rewrite without numbers:

There are only two types of Beebos in the world, Greek and Texan. I know the weight of one Greek Beebo and I know how many Greek Beebos there are in the world. I need to find out how much the Texan Beebos weigh altogether.

On the outset, this seems great. If your kid does this:

It’s more likely your student will do this (especially if they’re struggling or you’re a hired tutor):

Notice the struggle and strain? And notice that both videos show the same thing – the “student” (me) just reading the problem and replacing the numbers with “I know how much…”

Watch students carefully. Listen to their intonations, watch their faces, watch their bodies. Whether you’re in a classroom or one on one, watch! If they got it, you can see it. If their little foreheads are wrinkled and they are tense – stop. They don’t have it. They are guessing. Go back. Try something else.

See? Let me know what you think in the comments.



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3 Responses to How to Know When a Kid is Confused

  1. Cassyt says:

    You make a good point. As a classroom teacher, it never occurred to me that a teacher would expect this of students without modeling how to distill the information or without guiding a classroom discussion of a problem.

  2. Lewis Hall says:

    I teach college seniors (not math). Last year I made a conscious decision to give my weekly lectures without notes so I was always facing and looking at the students. I was amazed at how more engaged I was with them and able to tell from they expressions and body language whether or not they understood what I was saying.

    It might take some time, but IOS 5 and the iPad will revolutionize the classroom. With a wireless iPad in your hand you can wander among your students, play videos, jot on a whiteboard, and even hand the iPad to a student to solve a problem. This while always facing the class.

    • Bon says:

      I wonder if that’s why I’ve always been behind in lectures – even to the point of skipping many. I write a line then turn to the students to have them give me the next thing to write. If I’m in the middle of the “telling” part of the interaction, I still pause for long periods so they have time to write it and comprehend it and I have time to watch the faces.

      Either we do what you do, or cut the amount covered in half. Either way, we get the “face” time.

      Thanks for sharing your story, Lewis!

      (oh – and what subject do you teach?)

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