« Charity Event Will Support 'Modern' Music Education Programs | Main | Group Seeks to Accelerate STEM to STEAM Push »

Encouraging Math Students to 'Make Sense of Problems'

David Ginsburg, of Education Week Teacher's Coach G's Teaching Tips blog, has a good explanation about what it means to "make sense of problems"—one of the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice

As I've written before, the Standards for Mathematical Practice are a unique feature of the Common Core State Standards. They describe the habits and methods demonstrated by proficient math students. 

In illustrating how to "make sense of problems," the first practice standard, Ginsburg offers this example of a problem he was given as a new teacher. (If you were a fan of Cheryl's Birthday, you may like this one as well—though I found it a lot less brain-twisting.)

Place the numbers 1 - 8 in the grid, using each number once, such that no consecutive numbers are in boxes that touch vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.

Make Sense of Problems and Persevere in Solving Them.jpg

Ginsburg explained that the problem takes most people about 20 minutes to solve. But, he writes:

[A] handful of teachers and students, most notably a 4th grader who was an average math student, have nailed this problem in a minute or two. What did they do that the rest of us didn't do? Simple: They thought about the problem before trying to solve it. They made sense of the problem, and the solution became obvious to them. The rest of us, on the other hand, just grabbed a pen or pencil and plugged in numbers.

The common core practice standard puts it this way: Proficient students "plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt." 

The first educator to introduce me to the idea of "sense-making" in mathematics was Dan Meyer, a Stanford University doctoral candidate and former math teacher, best known for his viral TED Talk.

Meyer told me in 2011 that teachers need to be "delegating the sense-making of math to students." The way to do that? By being "less helpful." That is, by throwing a problem like the one above up on the board, and not saying anything—letting the class try it on their own or talk it out if they want to. 

Too often, textbooks (and teachers) hand-hold students through a solution, Meyer says. But wouldn't the value of "planning a solution pathway" be better learned by having students see some of their peers answer the puzzle in under a minute—and then asking how they did it?

Would be great to hear from math educators (and anyone who tried the problem above) in the comments section below. 

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Follow This Blog


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments

  • Linda: My problem with homework is they give too much and read more
  • Seo Article Writer: Hello I just see your site when I am searching read more
  • Car Insurance Guy: Ah!!! at last I found what I was looking for. read more
  • cyptoreopully: Hey there everyone i was just introduceing myself here im read more
  • Connie Wms: Good grief. We have gone round and round forever with read more