Wednesday, June 30, 2021

What's the problem we're trying to solving in math education?

The way we ask a question tends to frame our solution. This was one of the most long-lasting lessons that I learned at the's week-long Teaching and Learning Studio. The activity we did early in the week to introduce this idea is one that I still do with teachers. I'll do my best to recreate that experience here.

First, I need you to break into one of two groups. Each group will do a different task. Let's assign your task based on your birthdate. If the day of your birth is odd, then do the first task. If it is even, then do the second one. (e.g. I was born on the 29th, so I'd be in group one.)

To begin, click on the appropriate link provided below. It will open up a copy of a Jamboard with the task's question. You can do your work on the Jamboard (it is yours to keep) or on a separate piece of paper.

Task One (odd birthdates)

Task Two (even birthdates)

Don't read any farther until you've completed your task or you'll ruin the surprise.

Once you've completed your task, click on the other task question and consider how that question might result in different solutions and why.

The first group often comes up with a variety of creative vases. Some have multiple openings at the top. Some hold the flowers sideways. However, because of the way the question is framed, they are all obviously vases.

Very few vases show up in the second group. Instead, flowers grow on the wall or hang from the ceiling. One participant had the flowers floating in a clear container with a fan at the bottom. Sure, it might not actually be feasible, but it is a much more creative way to start seeking solutions.

IBM does a version of this activity in their
Enterprise Design Thinking Course

I ask educators to do these tasks to highlight that most of our efforts to innovate in math classrooms amount to the first task. No matter what we do, we just end up with another vase. This is one reason why Kathy and I wrote Designing Math Adventures - because we want learners to experience something more than another math lesson.

So, what's the question you'll ask to frame your next school year? I'd like to collect them in the comments. Thanks for contributing to our creative problem-solving.

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