Why can’t our students be authentic problem solvers?

Textbook problems suck.

We’ve all seen the joke knocking math class that says something to the effect of “Only in math class can a person buy 42 cantaloupes and nobody wonders what is wrong with him.” Although this might seem ridiculous, it doesn’t take one a very long time to search around a math textbook for an equally ridiculous problem. If they aren’t ridiculous then they are often routine problems that are dressed up with words around them. They masquerade around as higher level thinking problems but often (admittedly not always) end up being lower level problems that take up more space on the page.

And when Steve Kelly I devised our latest idea on the way home from Flipcon13 we set out to end that.

Well, as best as we could.

Last year we worked closely to reinvent precalculus. (You can read more about that here.)

A major part of precalc were differentiated projects at the end of each unit in which students could choose any topic relating to math and create something on that topic to share with the world. Our students created some awesome projects and many discovered math somehow connected with their passions. This project, along with the flipped class format, allowed me to have tremendous conversations with my students. We marked one in the win column and figured we would build on it next year.

Coming home from flipcon13 we were discussing how to improve the projects and the class in general. And after a slow start in the idea department we had a light bulb moment.

Instead of simply asking students to do expository projects, why not give them a menu of authentic, real world problems to solve? Our goal now has shifted from having students see math within their passions, to students solving problems within their passions.

This idea is young and still largely in the development phase but let me lay out the basic structure. We are going to create an ebook of questions/problems for students to choose. Our hope is that each problem will be explained via video by an expert in that field. For instance, an engineering problem delivered by an engineer. A marketing problem delivered by a local business person. A question regarding aesthetics delivered by an art teacher or professor. At the beginning of each unit students can choose which problem they want to pursue. We will set aside certain days throughout the unit for class time in the project, but will expect some of it to be done outside of class. We hope that students will be able to solve the problem or answer the question. Their solution, the process they went through to get there, and whatever they created to demonstrate the knowledge they’ve gained will be delivered at the end of the unit via a Ted style talk. (We also will be utilizing Ted Talk Tuesdays in which we show a different Ted talk each Tuesday.) If students can’t solve the problem then they should demonstrate what they’ve learned along the way and why it is such a tough problem to solve. We hope to invite parents and administrators to this event.

Students are certainly allowed to work collaboratively. We will ask that if they do, they document their collaboration. If they work in the library, then do a short group reflection on how it went. If they did a google hangout, then screencast it. We very badly want each student involved in the process. All groups or individuals will have to complete a reflective piece once they are done.

Our over-arching goal is for students to engage in the problem solving process in the context of problems that actually exist and, being real, are inherently cross-curricular. We hope this will increase engagement and put students in the guts of the problems they might face in the real world.

We have several ideas for industries and fields that questions could come from and that probably requires a separate post. If you have ideas for authentic questions or problems that might with with our objective or ways we might be able to improve this idea please let me know in the comments, tweet me @z_cress, or email me at cresswellzach@gmail.com. We will certainly be sharing resources as they are created.

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3 thoughts on “Why can’t our students be authentic problem solvers?

  1. I can’t wait to see what your eBook finally looks like. I think this is an amazing idea to TRULY connect students to real life application of mathematics. And the people who use it!

  2. Zach, As soon as I read your tweet, my brain started to think about what exactly is a question that could not be answered with a google search. A very interesting idea to collect these questions and to allow students to help find solutions. Though I am a chemistry teacher, the questions that come quickly to mind are more about running and coaching:
    1) which type of foot strike is most associated with shin problems?
    2) are minimalist shoes a healthy choice for high school runners?
    3) is it possible to change running cadence in high school distance athletes? (This one would be an easy one to measure.)
    Here’s physics one:
    4) how does the temperature affect the Doppler effect of a car horn (measure the frequency of the sound as it approaches and as it departs) practical applications? Being able to determine distance of a car by sound?
    Or a bio/zoology question:
    4) can the frequency of a cricket’s chirp be correlated to temperature?

    I will keep working on the chemistry questions!

    Keep me posted on your project. Very cool.

    Julia Winter

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