How to Succeed in Math: Answer-Getting vs. Problem-Solving

You want your child to succeed in math because it opens so many doors in the future.

But kids have a short-term perspective. They don’t really care about the future. They care about getting through tonight’s homework and moving on to something more interesting.

So how can you help your child learn math?

When kids face a difficult math problem, their attitude can make all the difference. Not so much their “I hate homework!” attitude, but their mathematical worldview.

Does your child see math as answer-getting? Or as problem-solving?

Answer-getting asks “What is the answer?”, decides whether it is right, and then goes on to the next question.

Problem-solving asks “Why do you say that?” and listens for the explanation.

Problem-solving is not really interested in “right” or “wrong”—it cares more about “makes sense” or “needs justification.”

Homeschool Memories

In our quarter-century-plus of homeschooling, my children and I worked our way through a lot of math problems. But often, we didn’t bother to take the calculation all the way to the end.

Why didn’t I care whether my kids found the answer?

Because the thing that intrigued me about math was the web of interrelated ideas we discovered along the way:

  • How can we recognize this type of problem?
  • What other problems are related to it, and how can they help us understand this one? Or can this problem help us figure out those others?
  • What could we do if we had never seen a problem like this one before? How would we reason it out?
  • Why does the formula work? Where did it come from, and how is it related to basic principles?
  • What is the easiest or most efficient way to manipulative the numbers? Does this help us see more of the patterns and connections within our number system?
  • Is there another way to approach the problem? How many different ways can we think of? Which way do we like best, and why?

What Do You think?

How did you learn math? Did your school experience focus on answer-getting or problem-solving?

How can we help our children learn to think their way through math problems?

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your opinions in the Comments section below.


CREDITS: “Maths” photo (top) by Robert Couse-Baker. “Math Phobia” photo by Jimmie. Both via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Phil Daro video by SERP Media (the Strategic Education Research Partnership) via Vimeo.

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.


New Book: Word Problems from Literature

The posts on my Let’s Play Math blog are, for the most part, first-draft material. Of course, I’ve proofread each post — many times! because I’m a perfectionist that way, and yet I still miss typos :-/ — but these articles haven’t gotten the sort of feedback that polishes a book manuscript.

Well, now I’m taking some of the best of my old blog posts, expanding them with a few new games or activities, and giving them that book-quality polish. Let me introduce my newest series, the Playful Math Singles.

Under Construction …

The Playful Math Singles from Tabletop Academy Press will be short, topical books featuring clear explanations and ready-to-play activities.

I’m hoping to finish up two or three of these this year. Watch for them at your favorite online bookstore.

The first one is done …

Word Problems from Literature: An Introduction to Bar Model Diagrams

You can help prevent math anxiety by giving your children the mental tools they need to conquer the toughest story problems.

Young children expect to look at a word problem and instantly see the answer. But as they get older, their textbook math problems also grow in difficulty, so this solution-by-intuitive-leap becomes impossible.

Too often the frustrated child concludes, “I’m just not good at math.”

But with guided practice, any student can learn to master word problems.

Word Problems from Literature features math puzzles for elementary and middle school students from classic books such as Mr. Popper’s Penguins and The Hobbit.

For each puzzle, I demonstrate step by step how to use the problem-solving tool of bar model diagrams, a type of pictorial algebra. For children who are used to playing with Legos or other blocks — or with computer games like Minecraft — this approach reveals the underlying structure of a math word problem. Students can make sense of how each quantity in the story relates to the others and see a path to the solution.

And when you finish the puzzles in this book, I’ll show you how to create your own word problems from literature, based in your children’s favorite story worlds.

Free Online Preview

Buy now at your favorite online bookstore.

If you’re using these word problems with your children, consider buying them the paperback companion Word Problems from Literature Student Workbook.

… and People Like It!

A screen shot from this past weekend:

“I found this method really clarified for me what was going on visually and conceptually. Particularly when it came to more complex questions, for which I would normally write out an equation, I felt that thinking about what was going on with the bars actually made more sense … This is a wonderful book for those who want to support their children in finding better ways to work on word problems.”

—Miranda Jubb, Amazon customer reviewer


howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.


Visualizing Word Problems with Bar Model Diagrams

A friend emailed me, frustrated with her child’s math lesson on bar diagrams: “Why do they have to make it so complicated? Why can’t we just solve the blasted problem?”

I told her bar models themselves are not the goal. The real question for parents and teachers is:

  • What can you do when your child is stumped by a math word problem?

To solve word problems, students must be able to read and understand what is written. They need to visualize this information in a way that will help them translate it into a mathematical expression.

visualizing-word-problems

Bar model diagrams are one very useful tool to aid this visualization. These pictures model the word problem in a way that makes the solution appear almost like magic.

It is a trick well worth learning, no matter which math program you use.

Visualization

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKsYDzQK8Zw

“Visualization is the brain’s ability to see beyond what the eyes can see, and we can develop visualization in many ways.”

The Bar Model Explained

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6Ipio8JntU

“A bar model is a way to represent a situation in a word problem using diagrams — in particular, using rectangles.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7LAHc1qvig

“This is one of the ideas that children learn in mathematics: the use of diagrams to represent quantities, especially quantities which are unknown.”

Word Problems from Literature

I’ve written a series of blog posts that explain bar model diagrams from the most basic through to solving multistep word problems. Check them out:

I’ve started working on a book about bar model diagrams, and I’d love to hear your input. Have you tried using them? Do they help your children? What questions do you have?

Update: My New Book

You can help prevent math anxiety by giving your children the mental tools they need to conquer the toughest story problems.

Check out Word Problems from Literature: An Introduction to Bar Model Diagrams—now available at all your favorite online bookstores!

And there’s a paperback Student Workbook, too.


CREDITS: Videos and quotations from Dr. Yeap Ban Har’s YouTube channel. “Girl doing homework” photo (top) by ND Strupler and “math notebooking equal fractions” by Jimmie via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).


howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.


Professor Povey’s Perplexing Problems

Check out this new puzzle book for upper-level high school students & adults:

Professor Povey picture

Thomas Povey is a Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford, where he researches jet-engine and rocket technology. In his new book Professor Povey’s Perplexing Problems, he shares his favorite idiosyncratic stumpers from pre-university maths and physics.

These problems “should test your ability to grapple with the unfamiliar,” Povey writes. “You will learn to tease new problems apart, and apply things you already know in ways you had never considered. You have all the tools you need, but you should see what amazing things you can do with them.”

Can You Solve This?

Alex Bellos shared one of Professor Povey’s puzzles in The Guardian. Can you figure it out?

Professor Povey cover

The book starts off with geometry, but most of the chapters focus on various topics from physics. Some of the puzzles are accessible through applied common sense, but for many of them, it helps to have taken an algebra-based (high school level) physics course.

Kitten is just finishing up her physics textbook, and she still has one more year of homeschooling. I’m hoping to work several of these puzzles into our schedule this year. It should be great fun!

Spoiler

If like me you’re a bit rusty on your physics, don’t worry. Each answer is thoroughly explained—‌in fact, it takes a bit of discipline to close the book and try your hand at each problem before reading on. I wish they’d put the solutions in the back rather than in the main text, to make it easier to browse the problems without reading spoilers.

Speaking of which, here’s the answer to the video puzzle above…


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Reblog: Solving Complex Story Problems

[Dragon photo above by monkeywingand treasure chest by Tom Praison via flickr.]

Dealing with Dragons

Over the years, some of my favorite blog posts have been the Word Problems from Literature, where I make up a story problem set in the world of one of our family’s favorite books and then show how to solve it with bar model diagrams. The following was my first bar diagram post, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide whether “one fourth was” or “one fourth were.” I’m still not sure I chose right.

I hope you enjoy this “Throw-back Thursday” blast from the Let’s Play Math! blog archives:


Solving-Complex-Story-Problems

Cimorene spent an afternoon cleaning and organizing the dragon’s treasure. One fourth of the items she sorted was jewelry. 60% of the remainder were potions, and the rest were magic swords. If there were 48 magic swords, how many pieces of treasure did she sort in all?

[Problem set in the world of Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Modified from a story problem in Singapore Primary Math 6B. Think about how you would solve it before reading further.]

How can we teach our students to solve complex, multi-step story problems? Depending on how one counts, the above problem would take four or five steps to solve, and it is relatively easy for a Singapore math word problem. One might approach it with algebra, writing an equation like:

x - \left[\frac{1}{4}x + 0.6\left(\frac{3}{4} \right)x  \right]  = 48

… or something of that sort. But this problem is for students who have not learned algebra yet. Instead, Singapore math teaches students to draw pictures (called bar models or math models or bar diagrams) that make the solution appear almost like magic. It is a trick well worth learning, no matter what math program you use …

[Click here to go read Solving Complex Story Problems.]

Update: My New Book

You can help prevent math anxiety by giving your children the mental tools they need to conquer the toughest story problems.

Read Cimorene’s story and many more in Word Problems from Literature: An Introduction to Bar Model Diagrams—now available at all your favorite online bookstores!

And there’s a paperback Student Workbook, too.


howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.


Reblog: Putting Bill Gates in Proportion

[Feature photo above by Baluart.net.]

Seven years ago, one of my math club students was preparing for a speech contest. His mother emailed me to check some figures, which led to a couple of blog posts on solving proportion problems.

I hope you enjoy this “Throw-back Thursday” blast from the Let’s Play Math! blog archives:


Putting Bill Gates in Proportion

A friend gave me permission to turn our email discussion into an article…

Can you help us figure out how to figure out this problem? I think we have all the information we need, but I’m not sure:

The average household income in the United States is $60,000/year. And a man’s annual income is $56 billion. Is there a way to figure out what this man’s value of $1mil is, compared to the person who earns $60,000/year? In other words, I would like to say — $1,000,000 to us is like 10 cents to Bill Gates.

Let the Reader Beware

When I looked up Bill Gates at Wikipedia, I found out that $56 billion is his net worth, not his income. His salary is $966,667. Even assuming he has significant investment income, as he surely does, that is still a difference of several orders of magnitude.

But I didn’t research the details before answering my email — and besides, it is a lot more fun to play with the really big numbers. Therefore, the following discussion will assume my friend’s data are accurate…

[Click here to go read Putting Bill Gates in Proportion.]


Bill Gates Proportions II

Another look at the Bill Gates proportion… Even though I couldn’t find any data on his real income, I did discover that the median American family’s net worth was $93,100 in 2004 (most of that is home equity) and that the figure has gone up a bit since then. This gives me another chance to play around with proportions.

So I wrote a sample problem for my Advanced Math Monsters workshop at the APACHE homeschool conference:

The median American family has a net worth of about $100 thousand. Bill Gates has a net worth of $56 billion. If Average Jane Homeschooler spends $100 in the vendor hall, what would be the equivalent expense for Gates?

Continue reading Reblog: Putting Bill Gates in Proportion

Reblog: The Case of the Mysterious Story Problem

[Feature photo above by Carla216 via flickr (CC BY 2.0).]

Seven years ago, I blogged a revision of the first article I ever wrote about homeschooling math. I can’t even remember when the original article was published — years before the original (out of print) editions of my math books.

I hope you enjoy this “Throw-back Thursday” blast from the Let’s Play Math! blog archives:


Case-of-the-Mysterious-Story-Problem
I love story problems. Like a detective, I enjoy sifting out clues and solving the mystery. But what do you do when you come across a real stumper? Acting out story problems could make a one-page assignment take all week.

You don’t have to bake a pie to study fractions or jump off a cliff to learn gravity. Use your imagination instead. The following suggestions will help you find the clues you need to solve the case…

[Click here to go read the original post.]

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