The Math Struggle

I’ve been using different math prompts for the past few years.  I usually introduce the prompts and give students time to work in a group to find a solution.  Students often work together, struggle, and eventually come to a solution.  It’s expected for students to document their journey in solving the problem in the prompt.  Last week I gave this prompt to one of my upper elementary classes:

math task

When I first introduced the problem the students had a million questions.  The questions were mostly related to what operations to use and hoping that I’d give away a few hints.  I want the students to succeed, but I also want them to become more responsible for their own learning.  I answered the questions related to the directions, but intentionally didn’t give away any information regarding what procedures/operations to use.  The students were then divided into groups and given 20 minutes to find a solution and present the answers to the class.  The next 10 minutes or so were challenging.  Challenging may be an understatement.  The students struggled, period.  They had a tough time knowing where to start after finding how many dollars fit in a ream. The less I spoke the more the students seemed to flounder.  Students began to look at each other and within to find a solution.  After the initial 10 minutes, the groups began to click.  Students started to find that their solutions were working. The students were beginning to make progress. The students were pumped and I tried to hide my own excitement for them as some groups were still struggling.  Groups were gaining momentum and near the 20 minute mark most groups were finished or partially finished.

The students then presented their journey in problem solving and the process used to find the solution.  Each group solved the problem (or came close to solving the problem) in a different way, but all the groups learned from each other during the presentations.

Following the presentations, the class had a discussion related to the math prompt.  The groups reflected on how challenging it was to persevere through the struggle of not knowing how to solve a problem.  I’m glad that the students were able to experience the struggle.  Moreover,  I’m glad that some of the students were able to use math problem solving strategies and look within and to each other to persist.

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