This year my maths programme has been rather mundane. I had delusions of promoting some sort of Daily 5 approach to maths but nothing really came of it. I was simply going through the motions teaching strategies but not really enjoying it. Maths was something I had to teach but the passion wasn’t there.

Last year I found a fascinating TED talk by Conrad Wolfram which argued that automation of maths could enable students to be able to develop a grasp of more complex mathematical problems at an earlier age.

I filed that thought away in my ‘nice idea’ file. Simply put I had no idea how to apply the principles of that talk to a classroom situation but I loved the essence of it, making maths real and relevant to the students.

A week ago while looking for an interesting hook into algebra, Matt posted about a programme happening over at Amesbury on what Wolfram argued was the corner stone of maths, posing the right questions.

One of Wolfram’s arguments is that schools spend far too much time on teaching kids computation at the expense of developing their skills to identify problems, come up with formula and then check it in the real world.

So I gave the problem-finding procedure that Matt was trying in my own class.

One of the keys to this programme is authentic contexts for learning. We had two problem-finding sessions over the week, the first was on buying new furniture for the school, the second on electoral maths.

Before the session I prepared a series of problems for the students..

Starting from easy problem, e.g how many tables does the school need to buy or if the polls close in Hawaii what time is it here in New Zealand through to more complex questions e.g which moving company should the school choose or did Nadar really influence the outcome of the 2000 election?

In order to be able to set up a maths formula, the students needed to ask me questions like for instance, what time do the polls close in Hawaii, through to which states did Nadar do well in?

The sessions were really corny. It may sound corny, but I was actually doing the maths. I was thinking about the principles I wanted to teach, where I might use it and ways I could apply what I was teaching to real-life contexts. Instead of setting texts I was engaging with the problems myself, thinking a lot more about exactly what it was the students needed to learn to solve the problems.

Over the course of the sessions I tried to video the students but there frequent interruptions from students trying to unlock more information to get to that next level. Yes the calculator function on their ipod touches came out. But they were also drawing recurring patterns, making guesses, exploring, using information they already knew to unlock part of the problem. It’s the most engaged I’ve seen my students in maths all year and were working finishing problems off at morning tea.

‘That was fun, can we do that again?’

A sure sign of a winning classroom activity.

Over the courses of the week I realized how these sort of sessions could be easily applied to questions around financial literacy.

How long does it take to repay your student loan?

Which kiwisaver provider or plan should choose?

Floating versus fixed rate mortgages?

The hidden costs of credit cards.

If I was going to make the programme a bit more upbeat I might give out QR codes instead of numbers and perhaps get the kids to answer via a google form. The students still have a bit of work to do around working with a team but it was interesting to see that the kids generally regarded as being ‘the best at maths’ by their peers aren’t necessarily the best problem finders.

For those who doubt the usefulness of real-world maths contexts, to student learning sure enough later in the week the question of what time it would be in Uruguay if it was 12 in Wellington came up. Why would my students be wanting to call Uruguay? Well that’s another post for another time.

Hi Stephanie, I recently reflected on this topic too. Maths needs to be real so that all children can connect with it. Math’s doesn’t need to be some crazy language that some of us will never understand. Good luck with extending your students learning in this area.

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Hi Stephanie,

I’ve been trialling this with my class using Matt’s problems and am just about to branch out and write some of my own. I too have found that the kids are really engaged and motivated by this type of problem solving, and yes – my brightest mathematicians are not necessarily my best problem solvers.

The group dynamics are fascinating and I have been learning a lot about my kids – beyond simply their ability in Maths. I have been thinking at some point, when the kids are are really familiar with the process, that it might be interesting to challenge them to have a go at creating their own problems for others to solve.

I like your idea of using QR codes – my mind is already working on the possibilities.

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