Category Archives: Problem Solving

Improving primary mathematics: The challenge of curriculum

Arguably one of the biggest challenges for most primary teachers is the struggle to address the many components of the mathematics curriculum within the confines of a daily timetable. How many times have you felt there just isn’t enough time to teach every outcome and every ‘dot point’ in the entire mathematics curriculum for your grade in one year? It is my belief that one of the biggest issues in mathematics teaching at the moment stems from misconceptions about what and how we’re supposed to be teaching, regardless of which curriculum or syllabus you are following.  The way we, as teachers, perceive the content and intent of our curriculum influences whether students engage and achieve success in mathematics. The way we experienced the curriculum when we were at school also influences how mathematics is taught in our own classrooms.

This struggle arises partially from the common perception that every outcome (in NSW) or Content Descriptor (from the Australian Curriculum) must be addressed as an individual topic, often because of the way the syllabus/curriculum is organised (this is not a criticism – the content has to be organised in a logical manner). This often results in mathematical concepts being taught in an isolated manner, without any real context for students. A result of this is a negative impact on student engagement. Students fail to see how the mathematics relates to their real lives and how it is applied to various situations. They also fail to see the connections amongst and within the mathematical concepts.

Imagine if you could forget everything you remember about teaching and learning mathematics from when you were at school. Now think about the three content strands in our curriculum: Number and Algebra, Measurement and Geometry, and Statistics and Probability. Where are the connections within and amongst these strands? If you could, how would you draw a graphical representation of all the connections and relationships? Would your drawing look like a tangled web, or would it look like a set of rows and columns? I’m hoping it would like more like a tangled web! Try this exercise – take one strand, list the content of that strand, and then list how that content applies to the other two strands. If you can see these connections, now consider why we often don’t teach that way. How can you teach mathematics in a different way that will allow students to access rich mathematical relationships rather than topics in isolation? How can we make mathematics learning more meaningful for our students so that maths makes sense?

This leads me to my second point and what I believe is happening in many classrooms as a result of misunderstanding the intention of the mathematics curriculum. If students are experiencing difficulties or need more time to understand basic concepts, you don’t have to cover every aspect of the syllabus. It is our responsibility as teachers to ensure we lay strong foundations before continuing to build – we all know mathematics is hierarchical – if the foundations are weak, the building will collapse. If students don’t understand basic concepts such as place value, it doesn’t make sense to just place the ‘strugglers’ in the ‘bottom’ group and move on to the next topic.

We need to trust in our professional judgement and we need to understand that it’s perfectly okay to take the time and ensure ALL learners understand what they need to before moving on to more complex and abstract mathematics. It most definitely means more work for the teacher, and it also means that those in positions of leadership need to trust in the professional judgement of their teachers. Most importantly, it means that we are truly addressing the needs of the learners in front of us – the most important stakeholders in education.

 

Using mathematical inquiry to make mathematics meaningful

At the moment I’m involved in a project with the Sydney Metro (Transport for NSW), currently the largest infrastructure project in Australia. When complete, the Sydney Metro project is going to change the way many Sydney residents work, live and socialise. My involvement with this project has required me to design, deliver and research the effectiveness of a professional learning program. In this program, teachers from all stages of schooling and a range of curriculum areas learn about using inquiry based learning and then design, implement and evaluate units of work that use the Sydney Metro project as the stimulus for inquiry.  So what’s that got to do with engaging maths? My work in this project has confirmed what I’ve always believed – contextualising learning makes mathematics (and other disciplines, of course) more meaningful, purposeful and relevant for students. It shifts the traditional approach of ‘just in case’ learning to ‘just in time learning’.

Using contexts from student’s lives, such as Sydney Metro, makes mathematics come alive. For example, some of the students participating in the inquiry based units are looking at the social implications of having a rail station constructed in their community where there previously wasn’t one. This inquiry provides a purpose for designing survey questions, collecting, representing and analysing data that has meaning and purpose. Others are looking at the engineering aspects of the project relating to the tunnelling that is currently underway. Some are working on design aspects relating to the trains themselves or the stations and some are looking at mapping – planning future metro lines, or timing (the system won’t have a timetable).

The possibilities are endless, but for these units of work (or indeed, any inquiry based unit of work) to be successful, the teachers planning them have to consider carefully the potential directions that students will take their inquiry if the units are to be true inquiry based learning that is driven by students’ interests. This requires a strong knowledge of curriculum and a willingness to hand over some control of the learning to the students. It may even involve the introduction of content beyond the students’ current grade.
Another consideration when planning inquiry units is the inclusion of other aspects of our curriculum, beyond content. For example, in mathematics we have the Proficiencies (Working Mathematically in NSW) that represent the processes of mathematics. It’s impossible to conduct inquiry based learning without these processes and inquiry learning is a perfect opportunity to develop, refine and show evidence of these processes. Then we have the General Capabilities. Again, inquiry based learning provides an opportunity to access mathematics while accessing these capabilities, enhancing the relevance of the learning.

Where do you find resources for inquiry? Take a look around at what is happening in your community, in the media, or simply the things that your students are interested in. Consider how those things could spark curiosity in your students (or how you could promote that curiosity within  your students). Model how to ask good questions (students need to know how to do this – it doesn’t always come naturally). Be prepared for it to get messy, search for resources that the students might need or help them find resources. Be prepared to teach a range of mathematical concepts as the need arises.

I’ll you with an example of a resource that I believe would be a great stimulus for inquiry – take a look, at let me know what you think! Every Drop Counts

Tips for Teachers: Critical ingredients for a successful mathematics lesson

What are the ingredients for an effective mathematics lesson? Teachers are continually faced with a range of advice or ideas to improve their mathematics lessons and often this just creates confusion. It’s a little bit like being a cook. New recipes appear online and in cookbooks on bookstore shelves, but often they’re just adaptations of classic recipes that have been around before, their foundation ingredients are tried and tested, and often evidence based. There are always the staple ingredients and methods that are required for the meal to be successful.

The following is a list of what I consider to be important ingredients when planning and teaching an effective mathematics lesson. The list (or recipe) is split into two parts: lesson planning and lesson structure.

Lesson planning:

  • Be clear about your goal. What exactly do you want your students to learn in this lesson? How are you going to integrate mathematical content with mathematical processes? (The proficiencies or Working Mathematically components) Will you consider the General Capabilities in your planning?
  • Know the mathematics. If you don’t have a deep understanding of the mathematics or how students learn that aspect of mathematics, how can you teach it effectively? Where does the mathematics link across the various strands within the mathematics curriculum?
  • Choose good resources. Whether they are digital or concrete materials, make sure they are the right ones for the job. Are they going to enhance students’ learning, or will they cause confusion? Be very critical about the resources you use, and don’t use them just because you have them available to you!
  • Select appropriate and purposeful tasks. Is it better to have one or two rich tasks or problems, or pages of worksheets that involve lots of repetition? Hopefully you’ve selected the first option – it is better to have fewer, high quality tasks rather than the traditional worksheet or text book page. You also need to select tasks that are going to promote lots of thinking and discussion.
  • Less is more. We often overestimate what students will be able to do in the length one lesson. We need to make sure students have time to think, so don’t cram in too many activities.
  • You don’t have to start and finish a task in one lesson. Don’t feel that every lesson needs to be self-contained. Children (and adults) often need time to work on complex problems and tasks – asking students to begin and end a task within a short period of time often doesn’t give them time to become deeply engaged in the mathematics. Mathematics is not a race!

Lesson Structure:

  • Begin with a hook. How are you going to engage your students to ensure their brains are switched on and ready to think mathematically from the start of each lesson? There are lots of ways to get students hooked into the lesson, and it’s a good idea to change the type of hook you use to avoid boredom. Things like mathematically interesting photographs, YouTube clips, problems, newspaper articles or even a strategy such as number busting are all good strategies.
  • Introduction: Make links to prior learning. Ensure you make some links to mathematics content or processes from prior learning – this will make the lesson more meaningful for students and will reassure anxious students. Use this time to find out what students recall about the particular topic – avoid being the focus of attention and share the lesson with students. Talk about why the topic of the lesson is important – where else does it link within the curriculum, and beyond, into real life?
  • Make your intentions clear. Let students know what they’re doing why they’re doing it. How and where is knowing this mathematics going to help them?
  • Body: This is a good time for some collaboration, problem solving and mathematical investigation. It’s a time to get students to apply what they know, and make links to prior learning and across the mathematics curriculum. This is also a time to be providing differentiation to ensure all student needs are addressed.
  • Closure: This is probably the most important time in any mathematics lesson. You must always include reflection. This provides an opportunity for students to think deeply about what they have learned, to make connections, and to pose questions. It’s also a powerful way for you, the teacher, to collect important evidence of learning. Reflection can be individual, in groups, and can be oral or written. It doesn’t matter, as long as it happens every single lesson.

There are many variables to the ingredients for a good mathematics lesson, but most importantly, know what and how you are teaching, provide opportunities for all students to achieve success, and be enthusiastic and passionate about mathematics!

Beach Towels and Pencil Cases: Interesting, Inquiry-based Mathematical Investigations

In several of my previous posts I discussed the importance of promoting critical thinking in mathematics teaching and learning. I’ve also discussed at length various ways to contextualise mathematics to provide opportunities for students to apply prior learning, build on concepts, and recognise the relevance of mathematics in our world. In addition, investigations provide excellent assessment material – usually when we assess in mathematics we ask for specific answers. In investigations, students can show us a range of mathematics, often beyond our expectations. They are also a great way to integrate other subjects areas such as literacy and science.

In this blog post I am going to share some ideas for open ended and inquiry-based mathematical tasks based on two items that most students would be familiar with – beach towels and pencil cases!

Pencil Cases

Let’s start with pencil cases. It’s the start of the 2018 school year next week and many children begin each school year with brand new stationery, in brand new pencil cases. Even if they’re not brand new, most children have a pencil case. I came across an interesting article relating to pencil cases a few days ago, and I think this could be used to spark interest and curiosity. The article can be found here:

https://honey.nine.com.au/2018/01/19/14/35/pencil-case-missing-letter

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Short activities:

  1. Who has the heaviest pencil case? Compare the mass of your pencil case with the pencil cases of your group members. Who has the lightest? Estimate the mass, then use scales to test your estimations. How close were the estimations?
  2. Estimate, then calculate the surface area of your pencil case. What units are the most appropriate to use? Explain how you measured the surface area.
  3. Faber Castell is a famous brand of pencils. Investigate the history of Faber Castell and illustrate this on a timeline.
  4. According to the Faber Castell website, it takes one ‘pinus caribaea’ tree 14 years to be ready to be used to manufacture pencils. Each tree can produce 2500 pencils. If one tree was allocated to each school, how many pencils do you think each child in your school might receive? How did you work this out?
  5. If each of the 2,500 pencils were sold for $1.50, how much do you think the entire tree be worth in pencil sales?

Investigations:

  1. At the beginning of each school year many children get brand new pens and pencils to take to school. Investigate how much it would cost to buy your stationary. Which shop offers the best value for money?
  2. Some pencil cases like the one in the photo and in the Missing Letter article have small clear plastic pockets to put your name in. If a pencil case has only eight pockets, is this enough for your name? Investigate the length of names in your class. What would be the average length name in your class? What else could you explore about names?
  3. The pencil case in the picture came with some pre-printed letters for the clear pockets. There are more of some letters than others. Investigate the most common letter occurring in students’ Christian names. Do you think it would be the same in all countries?
  4. Design and make a pencil case to suit your individual stationery needs. Write about the mathematics you use to do this.

Extension Activities:

  1. Design a new and improved pencil and explain the changes you have made.
  2. Design, justify, and create a marketing campaign for a new, ‘miracle’ pen.
  3. Research and discuss the following statement: “To save the environment, wooden pencils will no longer be manufactured”.

Promoting Curiosity and Wonder

Mathematical investigations should promote curiosity and wonder. The pencil case questions and investigations are open, yet provide some structure and support. They give enough detail to communicate the type of mathematics required to complete the task or investigation. Students should eventually be able to feel confident enough to come up with their own questions and follow their own path in terms of the mathematics they access and apply, just like mathematicians do.

Round Beach Towels?

In the last year or two a new beach towel has emerged onto the beach towel scene. It’s round. Now this idea immediately caused some concern for my mathematical brain. I had questions.

  • Is there more fabric in a round beach towel than a regular, rectangular beach towel?
  • Is there more fringe, and wouldn’t this make the towel more expensive?
  • How does one fold a round beach towel?
  • Could you wrap a round beach towel around you the way you wrap a rectangular beach towel?
  • How much more area on the beach gets taken up by people spreading round beach towels?
  • Does this mean less people get to lay on the sand?
  • Could you design a round beach towel that has a tessellating pattern?IMG_4837

All of the questions above can be explored using a range of mathematics…I wonder how many more questions your students could come up with?

Critical Thinking, Mathematics, and McDonald’s

You might be wondering what McDonald’s has to do with mathematics and critical thinking. Recently I found a copy of the original McDonald’s price list dating back to the 1940s when McDonald’s was owned by the original founders, Dick and Mac McDonald. Since that time, the fast food franchise has become a global fast food brand recognised by most. It is because of this recognition that the 1940s menu makes a perfect stimulus for mathematical investigation and critical thinking. The links between mathematics and children’s lives are not always obvious for students, so opportunities such as this are important to ensure our students understand how mathematics can help to make important decisions that affect our finances, health and general well-being. Although you might consider rejecting this idea so as not to promote a fast food culture, consider this an opportunity for students to think critically about food choices.

The Maths and McDonald’s graphic below contains some suggestions for mathematical investigations and would best be suited to students in upper primary or lower secondary classrooms. However, they can be adapted quite easily for younger students.

Maths & McDonald_s (3)

Below, the prompts are listed in a table that details some of the potential mathematical content that students would be expected to apply, and the processes they would use in the application of the mathematics. Although not included in the table, the tasks also address several of the General Capabilities from the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics. In addition, the tasks lend themselves well to integration with other curriculum areas.

Investigation

Use Mathematics to:

Mathematical Content

 

 

Processes
(Working Mathematically components/Proficiencies)
Notes

 

 

Investigate how prices have changed over time (comparing similar items) · Addition

· Subtraction

· Fractions (percentages)

· Problem Solving

· Reasoning

· Communicating

· Fluency

· Understanding

· Provide access to Internet where possible to allow students to compare current prices

· Students could access census information to explore changes in cost of living

Explore the popularity of McDonald’s food compared to other fast food options · Statistics · Reasoning

·Communicating

·Fluency

·Understanding

· Students will need to spend time considering appropriate questions to ask

· Encourage students to analyse data and formulate conclusions resulting from the data

Analyse the nutritional value of a McDonald’s meal compared to a typical home cooked meal · Addition· Subtraction

· Multiplication· Division· Fractions

·    Problem Solving·    Reasoning·    Communicating·    Fluency·    Understanding · The beauty of this investigation is that it is personalised. If students are working in groups, they will need to negotiate what a ‘typical’ home cooked meal is.

· Grocery store apps would be handy for this investigation if students have access to mobile devices

· There are multiple ways this task could be completed

Consider the cost of a McDonald’s meal for your family, compared to your favourite home cooked meal · Addition

· Subtraction

· Multiplication

. Division

· Fractions

·    Reasoning·    Communicating·    Fluency·    Understanding · The beauty of this investigation is that it is personalised. If students are working in groups, they will need to negotiate what a ‘typical’ home cooked meal is.

·Grocery store apps would be handy for this investigation if students have access to mobile devices· There are multiple ways this task could be completed

Analyse the financial cost of eating takeaway compared to cooking the same food at home · Addition

· Subtraction

· Multiplication

·Division

.Fractions

·    Problem Solving

·    Reasoning

·    Communicating

·    Fluency

·    Understanding

. The takeaway food considered in this task may not necessarily be McDonald’s.

. It is important to allow students to draw from personal experience to ensure they are engaged with the mathematics and the task.

Using the Investigations in the Classroom

Once you have given students time to look at and discuss the original McDonald’s menu, you can choose to allow students to choose one or more of the investigations to explore. Better still, once they have completed an investigation they may be able to come up with one of their own – this is a great way to promote mathematical curiosity and wonder. Allow students to choose how they present their work, and encourage them to document all of the mathematics they do. It is also critical to build reflection into the investigation, so make sure you have some reflection prompts prepared for either verbal or written reflection.

The Maths and McDonald’s investigation provide opportunities for students to learn and apply mathematics in context. This improves student engagement, allows them to see the relevance of mathematics, promotes critical thinking and provides important and authentic assessment data.

The McDonald’s menu: https://www.thesun.co.uk/fabulous/food/3564107/mcdonalds-original-menu-1940-first-ever/

Promoting Creative and Critical thinking in Mathematics and Numeracy

What is critical and creative thinking, and why is it so important in mathematics and numeracy education?

Numeracy is often defined as the ability to apply mathematics in the context of day to day life. However, the term ‘critical numeracy’ implies much more. One of the most basic reasons for learning mathematics is to be able to apply mathematical skills and knowledge to solve both simple and complex problems, and, more than just allowing us to navigate our lives through a mathematical lens, being numerate allows us to make our world a better place.

The mathematics curriculum in Australia provides teachers with the perfect opportunity to teach mathematics through critical and creative thinking. In fact, it’s mandated. Consider the core processes of the curriculum. The Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2017), requires teachers to address four proficiencies: Problem Solving, Reasoning, Fluency, and Understanding. Problem solving and reasoning require critical and creative thinking (). This requirement is emphasised more heavily in New South wales, through the graphical representation of the mathematics syllabus content , which strategically places Working Mathematically (the proficiencies in NSW) and problem solving, at its core. Alongside the mathematics curriculum, we also have the General Capabilities, one of which is Critical and Creative Thinking – there’s no excuse!

Critical and creative thinking need to be embedded in every mathematics lesson. Why? When we embed critical and creative thinking, we transform learning from disjointed, memorisation of facts, to sense-making mathematics. Learning becomes more meaningful and purposeful for students.

How and when do we embed critical and creative thinking?

There are many tools and many methods of promoting thinking. Using a range of problem solving activities is a good place to start, but you might want to also use some shorter activities and some extended activities. Open-ended tasks are easy to implement, allow all learners the opportunity to achieve success, and allow for critical thinking and creativity. Tools such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and Thinkers Keys  are also very worthwhile tasks. For good mathematical problems go to the nrich website. For more extended mathematical investigations and a wonderful array of rich tasks, my favourite resource is Maths300  (this is subscription based, but well worth the money). All of the above activities can be used in class and/or for homework, as lesson starters or within the body of a lesson.

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Will critical and creative thinking take time away from teaching basic concepts?

No, we need to teach mathematics in a way that has meaning and relevance, rather than through isolated topics. Therefore, teaching through problem-solving rather than for problem-solving. A classroom that promotes and critical and creative thinking provides opportunities for:

  • higher-level thinking within authentic and meaningful contexts;
  • complex problem solving;
  • open-ended responses; and
  • substantive dialogue and interaction.

Who should be engaging in critical and creative thinking?

Is it just for students? No! There are lots of reasons that teachers should be engaged with critical and creative thinking. First, it’s important that we model this type of thinking for our students. Often students see mathematics as black or white, right or wrong. They need to learn to question, to be critical, and to be creative. They need to feel they have permission to engage in exploration and investigation. They need to move from consumers to producers of mathematics.

Secondly, teachers need to think critically and creatively about their practice as teachers of mathematics. We need to be reflective practitioners who constantly evaluate our work, questioning curriculum and practice, including assessment, student grouping, the use of technology, and our beliefs of how children best learn mathematics.

Critical and creative thinking is something we cannot ignore if we want our students to be prepared for a workforce and world that is constantly changing. Not only does it equip then for the future, it promotes higher levels of student engagement, and makes mathematics more relevant and meaningful.

How will you and your students engage in critical and creative thinking?

 

 

 

 

When a Maths Curse is a Good Curse!

In one of my previous posts I wrote about the use of children’s literature to encourage rich mathematical investigations and improve student engagement with mathematics. One of my favourite books, Math Curse by John Szieska and Lane Smith, is described in the blog post as a great way to engage reluctant learners. Even better, Math Curse encourages children (and their teachers) to see the mathematics that is embedded in every aspect of our lives. In this post I am going to share some student work from a Grade 3 classroom. In this classroom, the teacher read the book to the students before challenging them create their own class maths curse. The children took their own photographs, and working in small groups, they came up with a range of mathematical problems and investigations, which they then gave to other groups to solve.

Here are some of the photos with their accompanying questions:

Beyblades:

  1. If one of the beyblades spins for 2 minutes and 31 seconds and the other one spins for 1 minute and 39 seconds what is the difference between the two times?
  2. If one of the beyblades spins for 1 minute and 1 second and another spins for 78 seconds, which beyblade spun for the longest and by how long?

Hair:

  1. If there are 31 people in the class (10 boys and 21 girls) and all of them have hair that is 30cm long. Half of the boys cut 10cm off their hair, the other half cut 20cm off their hair. How long is the classes hair now altogether? How long was it before? How much hair has been cut altogether?
  2. Check your friend’s hair. Estimate how long it is when it is out, how long it is when it is in a ponytail, and how long it is when it is in a braid. List some different ways you could check if your estimate is accurate? What are the potential problems with your methods?
  3. I’m 9 years old. I had really long hair for 6 years, then I cut it. How long did I have short hair for?
  4. I have 5 friends that are girls and 2 friends that are boys. All 5 girls have hair length of 50cm. The boys both have different lengths of hair. The 1st boy has 30cm of hair, the second has 25cm of hair. What is the difference between the 1st boy and the girls and the 2nd boy and the girls?

Birthday Balloons:

  1. Write down the dates of important celebrations. If you add all the dates together, what is the value of their numbers?
  2. How many days are there in 6 years?
  3. If everyone’s birthday occurred every three years (starting the year you are born) what years would your birthday fall on?
  4. If Lisa and Jane went on a holiday every 2 months, how many holidays could they take in a year?
  5. If you could rearrange the seasons, what months would you choose to be Spring? Why?
  6. What is the most popular letter in the days of the months?
  7. Why do you think there are 4 seasons in a year?

From Problem Solving to Problem Posing

What is the purpose of getting students to write mathematical problems? First of all, the problems give us good insight into whether students recognise mathematical situations, and whether they understand where, how, and what mathematics is applied in day to day situations. An added bonus is that the students are highly engaged because they have ownership of the mathematics they are generating, the topics they choose are of interest to them, and stereotypical perceptions of school mathematics are disrupted.

Student Reflection

The students who wrote the examples above completed a structured written reflection following the sequence of designing and solving each others’ maths curses. Here are some of reflection prompts and a sample of responses:

What did you enjoy about today’s learning?

“working with my team”
“working at the problems for a long time and then finally getting them after a long, hard discussion”

“solving questions that my friends wrote”

“I felt challenged and I learnt more about what maths is”

“working with my group, choosing our own questions and learning something new”

“I liked the chess card the best because we had to solve it together and use problem solving”

“having a go at tricky questions even if i got them wrong”

Did you learn anything new?

“how to work things out in different ways”

“working in groups helps you learn more skills”

“not every question uses just one skill like addition, division, multiplication or subtraction”

“when I am challenged I learn more”

“Maths is not always easy”

“how to work together”

“Everyone in the group has different responses so we needed proof to figure out the right one”

What surprised you about this task?

“It surprised me how hard my own questions were”

“I didn’t know that we could come up with so many interesting questions”
“I got a shock! We had to research to solve some problems, Adam even taught me how to add a different way”

“I got some questions wrong “

“It was hard but if we put our brains into gear we could figure it out”

“I was able to play while doing maths” 

Using activities such as this provides multiple benefits for students. Contextualising the mathematics using students’ interests highlights the relevance of the curriculum, improves student engagement, and makes mathematics meaningful, fun and engaging!