How do we do skills in a problem-solving oriented class?

You’ve got a really awesome, quick answer for me, right? This one’s easy-peasy?

I’ve been having many conversations about how to include skills/review in a class that is much more centered around problem-solving. It really helps when students can efficiently and effectively calculate with positive and negative numbers, solve equations, etc. How do we get that to happen?

So, how to incorporate these skills without compromising values/the classroom? My first idea was to have 5 minute math sessions 3 days/week, emphasizing to students that this was about improving YOUR score and keeping everything fresh. Quick, clean, done.

But … is 5 MM really the best for this task of review/skill retention? First of all, if a student is really stuck on how to do something effectively and efficiently, 5 MM is not going to help him/her get smarter.  Second, even if I frame 5MM as a competition against yourself, we don’t care how you’re doing just that you’re getting better, etc., the practice still comes from a place of competition and drill.

Plus, I went to a talk this weekend that included a statistic about how large a percent of people remember 5 MM as literally harmful.

So, enter Number Stories, about which I learned in “What’s Math Got to Do with It?” (good book). With a number story, the teacher posts any problem that one could reasonably choose to do in one’s head on the board. Students then solve it in their head, giving a thumbs up when they have reached the answer. After some large percentage of students have thumbs up, students share different methods for doing the problem in their head.

Why is this (maybe) better? It decreases competition, but more importantly, students who try to do problems in their head inefficiently are expending incredible mental energy on calculation, rather than other areas of a problem. Having students share their methods opens up pathways for students who do not yet have as efficient methods. Everyone wins! (I think?)

Now, how to track data connected to number stories for my educator goals is another story …

What are your thoughts on how best to incorporate skills and review into a task-oriented class?


5 thoughts on “How do we do skills in a problem-solving oriented class?

  1. Doing this number stories activity turns the review into problem-solving too, in a way. The kids are explaining to each other how they think about things. You – or other students – can ask, “Why does that work?” Reasoning about ideas becomes the basis for everything you do, instead of copying the teacher’s procedures.

    • Yes! They’re great! I have never used number stories intentionally though, only as a time filler or occasionally to try to “automatize” skills that I thought should be more automatic. I’m excited to see what happens when I use them on a schedule towards specific objectives.

  2. I have learned so much from you and we only homeschool our math-intuitive/drill-opposed elementary age daughter. I would love to know more about the statistic of people remembering 5 MM as harmful. Do you have a link or author?

    We also have two older daughters (done with college and almost done with college) and they both remember the panic/freezing/hatred of 5MM. At the time, they were given the same test until they passed. Not for lack of studying or knowing the facts, but my daughters were so freaked out about the stakes and the time passing that they would eventually just remember the answer sequence to pass on to the next test so they weren’t embarrassed by their lack of progress. It didn’t matter that there was zero pressure from home or the teacher, the kids in the class always knew each other’s progress. I didn’t see a whole lot of value to those tests (my daughters called them “Mad Minutes”), other than their creativeness to find a work-around.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I already have the book on order. : )

  3. I like the idea of encouraging that mental math, but with less pressure than is typical. I still think some students will feel pressure, so you may want to give students the option of if they are stuck to use paper to figure it out. Or have students who feel stuck estimate rather than trying for an exact answer — I’m thinking of things that could help them to “unfreeze” if they get frozen. It may also be that giving the students a chance to talk about the pressure can help — they may be able to come up with some creative ways to diffuse that pressure.

    • I like both those ideas — paper option or estimating. I do notice sometimes that pressure still exists (though not as much as with 5MM and less giving up). I am also thinking about having a few posted at once so that we can spend longer with the expectation that it doesn’t matter how many you actually do (so fast-finishers aren’t chomping at the bit and students who need the wait time can get it).

      Also, is there a link you have for the harmful math practices?

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