Sometimes, We Need to Give Them Less

  • Sometimes, We Need to Give Them Less

    By Zachary Champagne, posted June 5, 2017 —

    Recently, I’ve been thinking about and sharing some of my ideas on becoming a better listener. In a profession where we are envisioned as sharers of information, it was tough for me to swallow that I should be listening more and talking less. However, I’ve come to believe that it’s the single most important thing we can learn to do better as teachers. 

    One of the ideas I’ve been exploring is how providing less structure can allow us to elicit more student thinking from our students’ written work. (Full disclosure: I was also recently inspired by my friend and colleague Brian Bushart and his NCTM Ignite talk “Do Less, Get More”). 

    Consider this problem that Mike Flynn wrote for Teaching Children Mathematics (“Problem Solvers: Problem: The Cycling Shop,” vol. 23, no. 1, August 2016, pp. 10–13):

    Imagine you work at a cycling shop building unicycles, bicycles, and tricycles for customers. One day, you receive a shipment of 8 wheels. Presuming that each cycle uses the same type and size of wheel, what are all the combinations of cycles you can make using all 8 wheels?

    This problem is rich with various entry points for students. They can start in a variety of ways. Additionally, and perhaps more important, the problem is also rich in the variety of structures that different students may rely on to keep track of their work. I’ve seen students use pictures, charts, tables, tally marks, equations, and more when they begin this problem.

    But it is only when we provide students with the problem as written above, and nothing else other than a pencil, that we can begin to see the power of the blank page. As teachers, we easily slip into trying to be too helpful. With good intentions, we take a problem like the Cycling Shop problem, and many times we give students something like this table:


    In my opinion, providing this structure before students get started limits what we can find out about how our students are mathematizing this situation. We are stuck with learning if they can accurately fill out a table that we created. I think we are better suited to first let students be the problem solvers we know they can be, by letting them solve this problem using whatever structure (if any) makes sense to them! If students are struggling to get started or make sense of the problem, then we can help them think of ways that they might use structure to solve the problem. This “less is more” strategy provides us with much more information about students and does not require them to use a structure that we created.

    I encourage you to respect the power of the blank page and give students more space to solve problems and less structure in the beginning.

    Champagne au picZachary Champagne is an assistant in research at the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (FCR-STEM) at Florida State University. He previously taught for thirteen years as an elementary school teacher with a specialization in math and science. During this time, he received many state and national awards for excellence in teaching, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), Duval County Teacher of the Year, and Finalist for Macy’s Florida Teacher of the Year. Zak is the current president of the Florida Council of Teachers of Mathematics (FCTM) and is currently interested in learning how young students think about mathematics and how to help them understand that mathematics makes sense. He tweets at @zakchamp. 

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    Tooba Malik - 4/16/2020 3:20:59 PM

    I was just saying in another post that students learn best from one another, because a lot of them are on the same level. Giving them little information sometimes can be good, because it gives them room to think, think, think, and to grow at the same time. Some students stop listening or get too frazzled by a lot of instructions and steps. Sometimes it's good to give them minimal information and see where their minds take them!

    niria chapa - 4/15/2020 3:20:39 PM

    This is a wonderful way to look at Math and the different perspectives of some students. Sometimes we do need to lay off the steps and procedures and just allow students to struggle for themselves and think about all the possible solutions. Students tend to check out when there is too much talking and this way there is an opportunity for them to free think and brainstorm.

    Zachary Champagne - 7/9/2017 11:49:05 PM

    Hi everyone, 

    Thanks for the feedback! I'm so glad to know these ideas are resonating and starting some discussions. I want to start by saying that I truly believe in the power that these tasks hold and that it's important to not overly-scaffold for students from the beginning. On a related note, my friend and colleague, Andrew Gael, wrote some ideas about open problems and special education students on this very blog. Check them out here and here. And as I wrote in the post, "I think we are better suited to first let students be the problem solvers we know they can be, by letting them solve this problem using whatever structure (if any) makes sense to them." But, I want to be very clear here. When our students struggle to get started, or need some support, it is our responsibility as educators to provide those supports. Robert hit the nail on the head, this is about formative assessment. We won't know what our kids already know if we give them the support and scaffolds before they show that they need them. *And thanks for sharing this on facebook and getting some conversation started over there - I too hope some more of it will come this way. 

    But all of that brings up the THE point. Which only partially addresses Kim's poignant thoughts. This work can't be done in a classroom where the norms and expectations are not set to support this work. It's a completely separate post (that others are way more suited to write than me) on how to set up classrooms where we truly allow for problem solvers and not problem performers. This work can't happen instantly in a classroom where students only are challenged to solve sets of problems that are all similar in nature. You know the page I'm talking about. Those students will need lots of experiences being problem solvers before they can move into this kind of work.  

    Now, to try and address Kim's more larger (very valid) concerns. I'm not convinced that these types of problems, including the variations you mentioned, don't have an important place at the table in a mathematics classroom. They certainly aren't the ONLY type of problems that students need to be doing. But, I'd like to argue that we, as a math ed. community, need to get better at how to implement and work with students on these types of problems. Even if they are a bit less "real" or "practical." Ultimately, I'm not convinced that a "real" problem that doesn't promote problem solving is any better than a "fake" problem that does encourage problem solving. In fact, I’d love it if the arguments you make about the market and which wheel combinations are more suited for a sale came up during this work. That helps kids see how math and the real world interact. Much more than any problem context ever could.

    I do wish I had more hours in my day to continue to respond to all your points Kim – because they are important and I truly appreciate your skepticism and the push back. I value that in our friendship very much. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to this. I hope it continues to spawn more conversation and discussion around these ideas.  –Zak



    Kimberly Morrow Leong - 7/7/2017 3:25:51 PM


    I am going to push back on this, because I think that you would appreciate it, Zak. Ben Sinwell makes a good point when he asks how students are prepared to be offered "less help." I have seen that happen in my role as a coach - students are set loose to solve an open task and have precisely zero idea how to start because they don't have adequate structure-making skills under their belt to access the task. 

    My objection, however, is a bit different, and is directed at the task. When I read the task, my initial solution strategy was to draw bicycles and I completely missed the references to the other types of cycles. In the past I might have chided myself for "missing the point" of the task. But now I recognize that my approach is far more practical, seeing the task as an economic task. Why use the wheels to make anything other than bicycles, because that's where the market is? The intention of this task is to find all combinations of unicycles, bicycles, tricycles (and quadricycles?). By design it is traditionally a logical task, and is "best" solved by creating some sort of organizing structure (a table, a list, a tree diagram, etc.). As such it calls on a far different set of skills than the problem I solved, which is a simpler factors problem.

    So I return to the task design. It is an open task, but while we might seek "creative and out-of-the-box" thinking in theory, it's really not what we want. We being teachers, mathematicians, assessment creators, textbook writers standard writers, and other powers that be. How do we know this? Each year I am involved in a lesson study project, and each year I am interested in what solution strategies teachers generate in anticipation of teaching the lesson (as in the 5 Practices). Rarely are we able to generate "out-of-the-box" possibilities, yet each lesson yields at least one that makes us shake our heads trying to figure out the student's thinking. This isn't evidence, per se, but it is a common experience. I believe this is because the open tasks we select can address radically different mathematics topics depending on the student's strategy. My interpretation of the wheel problem is a factors problem, while other students' strategies might address tree diagrams, numerical expressions, and of course using an organized list. While this sounds great, it isn't practical when the task-based lesson refers to a certain standard or falls on a particular day in the pacing guide, which is a reality of teaching. 

    Inherently this problem is a code for a particular solution strategy, which is a result of the problem's structure. There are many of those: the Handshake Problem, the Mango Problem (something involving a series of creatures indulging in a fraction of a bowl of some fruit), the Locker Problem, etc. You know the ones. How do you know a task is like this? In PD settings it is hard to encourage teachers of older grades to solve it differently than the "typical" way! I am not really so much being critical of the tasks, but of the assumptions we make when we give these tasks. The way students mathematize a real situation is so unpredictable, just as their interpretations of literature are. I think mathematical modeling offers a lens that is more open to teaching students to freely mathematicize, which gives us the freedom to teach a task like the wheel task as a structure lesson, rather than pretending it is actually "open."

    Thanks for making me think, Zak!   

    Robert Berry - 7/7/2017 2:35:22 PM

    I posted this piece on my Facebook page and a wonderful conversation emerged.  Below is my response on FB to questions concening support for students' in special education and concerns about student being left out to be lost without supports.

    "I took Zak's piece as a form of pedagogical support after the norms and nurturing are in place. In my mind this is a way to support problem solving. That is, "giving less" can be use for formative assessment and to provide opportunities to understand students' depth in understanding. It is not meant for teachers to give students tasks without the necessary supports. It would be irresponsible for teachers to not provide the necessary instructional supports or to meet students' needs. That is, use direct instruction where necessary but also allow space for students to use mathematics in creative ways for problem solving etc...I also think we should follow Kimberly Morrow Leong's advice and move this to the NCTM page to promote conversation."