Puzzling Perseverance

School mathematics has a bad reputation for being intellectually unattainable and mind-numbingly boring for many students.  Proclaiming the falsity of these beliefs is usually not enough to convince kids (or people in general) of their untruth.  Students need to experience their own success in mathematics and be given the opportunity to engage in curiosity-sparking mathematics.  For me, one of the very best moments in a classroom is when a self-proclaimed math hater fully engages in a challenge and is motivated to work hard to arrive at a solution.

Enter January 2nd and 3rd.  Students are back for a two-day week which they view as punishment and a rude-awakening from a restful winter break.  To boot, the Governor Dayton announced today at about 11 am that all Minnesota schools will close Monday, January 6th due to impending dangerously cold weather.  You can imagine where the motivation level was in school today.

As the CEO of room 114, I decided to make an executive decision and do a puzzle from Nrich (shocking, I know) in my probability and statistics class.  Technically, the students could use the mean or median to help solve the problem, so I wasn’t veering too far off of what I had previously planned.

The Consecutive Seven puzzle starts like this:


Initially, one student began by explaining to me that she took one number from the beginning of the set, one from the middle and one from the end.  Then she figured the other consecutive sums needed to be above and below that number.  (Spoiler alert:  These numbers actually end up being the seven consecutive sums, so I was very interested in her explanation of how she arrived at those particular answers.  )


It’s worth noting that this student’s first words to me at the beginning of the trimester term were, “I hate math and I hate sitting in the front.”  So you can imagine my excitement when she dove in head first into this particular task, happily and correctly.

Adding to my excitement about the class’s progress, another girl (who was equally enthusiastic about math at the beginning of the term) was the first one to arrive at a correct solution.  And although she probably wouldn’t admit it, she was thrilled when I took a picture of her work.  And I am more than thrilled to display it here:

photo 2

If you were wondering about how math-love girl #1 fared in completing the task, she persevered and impressed her skeptical cohorts:

photo 1

This phenomenon fascinates and excites me that students, when confronted with a puzzle, highly engaged and motivated throughout the lesson.  Dan Meyer summarized this idea nicely on his blog recently:

“The “real world” isn’t a guarantee of student engagement. Place your bet, instead, on cultivating a student’s capacity to puzzle and unpuzzle herself. Whether she ends up a poet or a software engineer (and who knows, really) she’ll be well-served by that capacity as an adult and engaged in its pursuit as a child.”

And who knows.  Maybe one of the girls featured above will become a puzzling poet.

Nrich Love Affair: MTBoS challenge #1

I told my husband that if we weren’t already married, I’d run away with nrich in a heartbeat.
That being said, it’s probably no surprise that my favorite problem comes from nrich: consecutive sums and is my response to the explore the mtbos mission 1.
I’ve used this problem a few times, with high level students, low level, and in between as well.

Here’s a poster with a general overview of the problem.  The link from nrich provides starting help as well as teacher notes and a solution.

Some things I love about it:
1. So many points of entry and a low barrier.
2. So many paths. I’ve had so many different conjectures arise from this problem because of the open-ended nature of it and its ease of exploration. The numbers are not intimidating so students are unafraid to explore some of their findings.
3. Multiple extensions. For example, do consecutive differences work similarly? What about consecutive products? Or better yet, the difference of consecutive products!
4. Students organize their work in so many different ways. It’s completely fascinating to see it happen.

When doing this with a lower level class, I usually have them make a list of noticings and/or wonderings. This way, the patterns they learn to communicate what they believe to be true in their head. I may challenge them to generalize a little, especially with odd numbers always being a consecutive sum.

The most exciting thing that happens when I do this problem is the “what ifs” that students can’t help but think up themselves.  For example, What if we took the difference of consecutive numbers?  What if we took the sum of consecutive odd or even numbers?  Consecutive square numbers?  Triangle numbers?  Negative numbers?  It’s pretty amazing to be part of.

If you have tried or try this problem in the future, I’d love to collaborate on it.