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.

Curiosity Driven Mathematics

In my very first years of teaching, I used to have students ask me, in that age-old, cliche teenage fashion, “When are we ever going to use this?”  I vividly remember my response being, “Maybe never.  But there are plenty of other things we do in life, like play video games, that have no real-world application. That doesn’t seem to bother us too much.”

In fact, if every moment of our lives needed to apply to the bigger picture, the REAL-world, when would we do anything for pure enjoyment? or challenge?  or even spite?  I know kids are capable of this because some of them spend hours upon hours a day engaging not only with a video game but also collaborating with other people through their game system.

And furthermore, where do we think this resentment for learning math really comes from?  I have a guess…probably adults who have realized that through the course of their lives, being able to solve a polynomial equation algebraically is not all that useful! News flash, math teachers:  Our secret is out! 

There are many kids across all levels of achievement that will not engage in the learning process simply because the state mandates it or the teacher swears by its real-world relevance.  Students (and arguably people in general) are motivated by immediate consequences and results and cannot easily connect that the algebra they are learning today will be the key to success in the future.  They do not care that if they don’t nail down lines, they’ll never have a prayer understanding quadratics.  If they are bored to death by linear functions, I can’t imagine that they have even an inkling of desire to comprehend the inner workings of a parabola.  

What does resonate with learners is the satisfaction of completing a difficult task, puzzling through a complicated scenario, or engaging in something for pure enjoyment.  Kids are naturally problem-solving balls of curiosity.   There are ways to provoke curiosity and interest while simultaneously engaging in rich mathematics.  I think many teachers assume that in mathematics, especially Algebra, curiosity and deep understanding need to be mutually exclusive, and I’m positive that mindset is dead wrong.  For example, show this card trick to any group of kids, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a group who isn’t trying to figure out how it works.  I also think you’d be hard-pressed to find the real-world relevance to a card trick.  It’s still no less amazing, as well as algebraic.  



Resilience leads the way

Intrigued by Matt Parker’s tweet yesterday, I decided to have a go at it.
Arrange the numbers 1-17 so that adjacent numbers sum to a perfect square.
It’s the kind of problem that makes students who struggle at math, or hate puzzles, shutter. I decided to take this problem on, in my lowest level remedial math class. This class has about 20 kids, 9th-12th grade, all who have failed a previous math class. These kids range in ability as there is a large variety of classes failed.
I started off by having them number little pieces of paper with the numbers 1-17. I think this helped in setting up the task in a low pressure way. Numbers 1-17, how hard could it be?
Then we talked about what numbers were square numbers. Those who thought they could begin were off.
Others who still couldn’t wrap their head around how the numbers could be arranged, together, came up with some examples of pairs of square numbers. Then, all students were able to make triples with adjacent square sums. They built on those smaller sets and began to come up with strings of 4 or 5 or 6 numbers. One student noticed that the highest square number that could be made from the numbers 1-17 was 25, so 16 and 17 needed to be on the ends of the arrangement since only one other number each would sum to 25 from the list.
Toward the middle of the task, I saw students getting frustrated that they only had a few left and they couldn’t seem to place them. We talked about how 1 could pair with multiple numbers on the list. That discovery seemed to re-energize them to rearranging more numbers and persevere in solving the problem.
The students had differentiated themselves at this point and some were working alone and some together. What I found very interesting is that when one of them solved it, they weren’t immediately drawn to that person to show them the answer. They wanted to figure it out on their own. They weren’t rushed either as students finished. Sometimes when students finish quickly, others become frustrated and just want the answer.
The students also developed some interesting strategies, like grouping pairs that totaled 16 and 25. By the end of the 30 minutes, every single student had arrived at the correct solution. I’m not sure if it was the physical manipulative or the puzzle-like feel of the task, but I was so proud of this group of kids. These are students who have already failed at math and have convinced themselves that they are inherently bad at it. Today they proved that not only is the latter completely false, but also that success is in math is achievable with perseverance and resilience.