The Only Reason to Do a Word Problem

I’ve avoided teaching word problems for years. Mostly because it’s hard to teach word problems.

"How much will I save if I buy 3 purses at 30% off?" is a word problem worth doing!

I’ve figured out a great way to do it, but I still don’t like it.

I’ve learned of a thing called “What can you do with this?” from dy/dan. This teacher sets up a situation so that students can ask questions.

I’ve been pondering the effectiveness of this for a while.

The thought is that if you allow students to observe something interesting and ask them “What can you do with this?” then they’ll create their own word problems.

This is in response to the fake or “made up” word problems from a textbook which mostly don’t work for teaching thinking skills.

But the issue remains the same. If someone presents a student with a video of Coke vs. Sprite and the student lacks curiosity about that subject, then it’s still a contrived problem. Or a contrived situation.

The only reason to do a word problem is if you’re emotionally attached to it.

Husband and I were talking about word problems the other night. After my demonstration about using to teach math, he said he wished he learned math that way. He needed something to hold on to. A reason for doing it.

He’s a set dresser in Hollywood for part of each year. Which means that he has to hang pictures on movie sets. And they have to be 55″ above the ground – at the center of the picture.

Not hard to measure, but there’s also the wire on the back to consider. Is the wire dead center? No. It’s probably above the center of the picture.

It becomes one giant word problem. But it isn’t written in a book. And it isn’t videoed by a teacher. It isn’t fake. There’s a real reason for him to do it.

Which made me realize that there’s only one reason to do word problems: if you’re emotionally attached to it.

If you need an answer to a question, you attach to it emotionally.

Parent: You’ve got 45 minutes to clean the kitchen before we leave for softball practice.

Kid: If I finish the kitchen before we leave, can I watch TV?

Parent: Sure, but the kitchen better be spotless.

Most likely the kid has a plan for TV – like watching his favorite cartoon on DVR that takes about 30 minutes. So he works out how fast he needs to clean the kitchen so he can get in his cartoon before leaving.

This is a real problem. His problem.

Watch your kids intently. See where they are doing word problems in their heads. Ask them to explain them. Give credit for work done – especially when self-created.

If someone else needs an answer, you attach to it.

Being helpful is a powerful motivator. Try this: with a pencil and paper sit in a public place. Act like you’re writing something important. Then ask out loud, “What’s 87 minus 13?” $5 says that at least four people will chime in to be helpful.

Let your kid help with balancing the checkbook or creating the budget. If you’re a classroom teacher, let the kids help figure out what teacher supplies to buy. Give them a limit on what to spend and the catalog and some guidelines.

If someone you like wants an answer, you attach to it.

I couldn’t have given a feathery duck’s tail about biology, but the teacher was crazy cute. So I wanted to please him. So I worked. Hard. And had a 100 average.

I suspect this is why the teacher at dy/dan is so successful. He’s cute, compelling and cool. Who wouldn’t want to engage with him?

If you have carisma and charm, use it. This might not work as a parent but will definitely work as a classroom teacher – at least for some students.

Give it a try. Tap into the emotion. And share your success below!

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One Response to The Only Reason to Do a Word Problem

  1. I was just talking about something similar with @teakayb yesterday. Nobody cares what time the train gets to Pittsburgh except for people who need to get to Pittsburgh.

    We should be letting kids’ problems and interests drive the math they need rather than trying to get them interested in math and justifying it later.

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