In his 2010 TED Talk, educator Dan Meyer talks about creating patient problem solvers and how the ways in which we approach problem solving in our classroom encourage students to be impatient problem solvers.  Dan’s TED Talk was the inspiration for this post, and it can be viewed here:

Whether they are called story problems, word problems, or problem solving problems, connecting mathematical concepts to real life situations is a core part of high quality mathematics instruction.  In the past, and in some classrooms still today, problem solving time consists of presenting students with a word problem to solve.  A typical problem might read something like this:

A patio floor is 40 feet x 40 feet.  I want to cover the floor with tiles that are 2 feet x 2 feet.  If each tile costs $1.10, how much will it cost to tile the entire floor?

Have you ever stopped to think how unlike real life this problem solving situation is?  When we set out to solve a problem, we first need to figure out what information we need.  Then we need to gather that information.  And finally we can use that information to solve the problem.  But in the problem solving situation above, we have provided students all of the information they need.

Here’s how that problem might look when presented to a class in the context of a real life problem solving situation:

How much will it cost to cover this patio floor with decorative tiles?

It seems incomplete, doesn’t it?  That’s the point!  Students can work in groups, pairs, or individually to determine the information they need to know to answer the problem.  Only after students have requested the information do you reveal the dimensions of the floor, the dimensions of the tiles, and the cost of the tiles.

Students who are used to being given all of the information they need may need to be prompted with additional questions:

  • What are you trying to find out?
  • What do you need to know to find a solution?
  • What do you need to know before you go to the store?
  • What do you need to know at the store?

Using an interactive whiteboard can add another dimension to the problem by allowing students to find the measurement of the floor, to find the measurement of the tiles, to pay the cashier for the tiles, and to tile the floor to check that they purchased the correct number of tiles.

Problems like these can be used to evaluate the ability of students to apply a learned concept such as area, or they could be used to introduce the same concept in the context of a problem solving situation.

For an online problem solving experience with area and perimeter, check out The Paving Slabs Problem.  What information would you remove?  What would you keep?

Share with us below what you thought of the TED Talk, this post, The Paving Slabs Problem, or how you are creating patient problem solvers in your classroom.