Focus on the Question

  • Focus on the Question

    By Timon Piccini, posted November 20, 2017 —


    “What is the solution for x, if three x plus five equals nine?” I hope that sentence is difficult for you to read. I hope that reading those words in that form makes you cringe and squirm. I know something within me feels icky just writing it. It is math, it should be written in math: “3x + 5 = 9, Timon! That is how you write it!” This is because we are used to the language of math. We are used to how it is expressed, and when we see it done any other way, it seems off. Our students speak their own language, so to hear math is just as cringe-inducing for them. Many of their hackles go up, or they are simply oblivious to the question you are asking.


    As mentioned in my previous post, algebra was my moment of reckoning. After that first year of teaching, I desperately came back to asking the question, “How can I make this demonstrable to students in a way that they can jump in feet first?” I always get students to try math before I teach math. I thought of balances, but realized that all our weights were too expensive or were only in sizes of 50 g, 100 g, etc. I went to the bank, purchased hundreds of pennies, and made many question-and-reveal videos, all so that I could begin my class with the question, “How many pennies are in each cup?” When I showed the video below, students had it solved before I even filled the second cup.



    Yet, if you ask them to isolate and solve for x in the equation x/4 + 6 = 10, they can’t handle it. It is because we don’t naturally think in math. Some of us have been taught to, and some of us pick up on thinking in math very intuitively, but most of us think in the language that we originally speak. This is why my first goal is to take a concept and reframe the question in a way that does not involve any technical terms. Introducing students to the technical terms will come at a later time. This is why I love manipulatives. It puts the students in a state of relaxation. It gives them success early on, and most important it allows them to experiment. Counting pennies is much less daunting than solving equations. Messing around with toy army men is way more chill than operations with integers. The fight or flight response comes down, and the engagement goes up.



    I remember the first experience I had with professional development using manipulatives; the teacher leading the activity allowed us to take 5 minutes to play with the manipulatives. She said that by the time students had a chance to mess around with the manipulatives, many had taught themselves the concept. Changing the question likewise gives students the chance to mess around with the math. If the question is well formed, then you have the chance to get out of the way and let the math happen itself. The students have something concrete to wrestle with, which gives them the chance to build strong conceptual understanding.



    Piccini au picTimon Piccini is an elementary school teacher who has a strong love of getting students to see that mathematics is more than just numbers. His favorite sound is when an entire grade 7 class cheers because they are starting to understand a base five number system (a true story). Piccini considers himself a jack of all trades, and when he is not teaching, he can be seen running, hiking, playing guitar, playing video games, and attending concerts, and pursuing just about anything to do with good food. He especially loves doing all this alongside his better half, Kelli.