Lee Orlando, fifth grade teacher extraordinaire, is the guest author of this article.
Does this scene sound familiar? It’s time for math problem-solving, so you gather your students and present the problem at hand. Together, you read through the problem. You may direct students to underline the important information. You may also ask them to restate, in their own words, what the problem is asking them to do and encourage them to think about strategies that might work to solve the problem. Time for your students to “go forth and solve.” A few may do so, but, soon enough, a sea of hands is waving throughout the classroom: “I don’t know what to do!” or “I still don’t get it!”
Beth Hulbert and Marge Petit have developed a method of posing math problems that first immerses students in the problem’s context. The idea is, if students can fully visualize what is happening in the scenario and understand how the different math elements of the problem are related, they are much better prepared to solve the question posed. To do this, students first investigate answers to questions about the scenario they themselves have generated. Then, and only then, are they presented with the question that accompanies the task.
Here are the steps:
1. Introduce the scenario - not the question. Beth suggests that, when possible, the scenario is introduced kind of in the same vein as telling a story - in other words, with some feeling of authenticity to grab students' attention.
2. The scenario is posted and students are invited to think about what kinds of math questions would fit this particular scenario. [I typed the scenario on paper and had them write their questions right in the meeting area.] After giving them a minute to think about some possible questions, the teacher calls on students to share some questions. She records these on the chart paper.
3. Students are invited to pick one of the questions on the chart paper (or one of their own, if that seems okay) and solve it. Beth said that this is where you can guide and differentiate. For example, for those quick-thinkers, you could direct them to solve other questions on the chart once they are finished with their first one. If you have kids you know need some extra support, you could direct them to a student question that would best prepare them for solving the actual question.
4. After 10 or so minutes hunkering down with student-generated questions, call the group back together, lead a quick share-out if you wish, and introduce the problem's original question (as presented in your math curriculum or whatever). By now, students have messed around with the components of the scenario, the numbers now have a lot more meaning, and they've made sense of the context. They are much better equipped to solve the question the teacher has for them and are much less likely to return to their seats and say "I don't get it!"