It is an interesting perspective moving out of the classroom into a coaching position. I have had more face-to-face teacher math conversations this year than ever in my career and it is wonderful. This position also lets me take a step back from the daily lesson planning and think about things I see across all of the grade levels. Most times, my thoughts are about the trajectory of mathematical ideas, however over the past couple of weeks I find myself thinking about two things I saw as norms when I taught, but now wonder more about…
1 – Is there a such thing as an addition, subtraction, multiplication or division problem?
I am sure we all can relate to the stories of students struggling with story problems. We see them be successful with Notice/Wonders and 3-Act Math tasks, however when given a story problem some “number grab” and compute without thinking about reasonableness. Why? While I think there are many factors at play here, I have another theory that has led me to question problem types. I could be completely off, but as I look through the curriculum and think about the progression in which I taught in 5th grade, I wonder if there is something to teaching “types of problems” within a unit. For example, in Unit 1, Investigation 1 could be my multiplication lessons while Investigation 2 could be my division lessons. While we don’t explicitly say, “this is how you solve a multiplication problem” and we explore various strategies to make connections between the operations, the header of the activity book pages say things such as, “Division Stories” or “Multiplication Stories.” Also, the majority of the work that week is the specific operation and applications.
From there I began to wonder, is there really a such thing as a specific operation problem? I would think that any division story could also be thought of as a multiplication problem. Do we lead students to think there are certain types of problems even if we make clear all of the strategies to find solutions? I love how CGI talks about problem types and wondering why more curriculum are not set up that way instead of keying students into operation-specific problems?
I asked some 4th graders about this exact idea. I gave them some multiplicative compare problems and asked them if they thought about each as multiplication, division or both. Then we talked about why.
2 – What makes students attach meaning to a vocabulary word? Do they need to?
Every year in 5th grade, I was confident that all of my students could find area and perimeter of rectangles. However, I was also confident that there would also be a handful of students who could find area and perimeter but didn’t know which was which. After much work with area and perimeter, they would have it by the end of the unit, but did they remember when they got to 6th grade? I am not sure.
Now, seeing all of the work they are doing with this beginning in 3rd grade, and talking to 3rd and 4th grade teachers who are seeing the same thing, I am left wondering why this is? What makes students attach meaning to vocabulary? This question is then followed by the my very next question…when do they have to?
I wonder if students should ever be given a problem where the context would not allow the students to figure out which one, area or perimeter, the problem was asking. For example, if Farmer Brown is buying fencing he would need the perimeter where if he was buying something to cover a piece of ground, it would be area. Should we ever give them just naked perimeter or area problems with no context where knowing the meaning of the word impacted their ability to solve it?
And then, after they do all of this work with both measurements, why do they forget which word is which year after year? I know the teachers do investigations with the work and use the vocabulary daily during the unit, as I did, but students still don’t hold on to it. What makes it become part of their vocabulary? Is it just too long between when they use it? Is it
These are just two things I am wondering about….