Educators who have bought into the power of inquiry-based teaching will admit that math is one of the most challenging areas to apply the pedagogy. Math has been taught based on computation for so long and built up such a bad reputation with many students that it can be hard to break through students’ anxiety, intimidation and hatred of math. As Dan Meyer said in his 2010 Tedx Talk, “I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it, but is forced by law to buy it.”

After six years in the classroom and a doctorate in math education from Stanford, Meyer is now the Chief Academic Officer at Desmos. But his blog has long been a go-to resource for teachers looking for different ways to inspire what he calls “patient problem-solving” in students. He says to help students develop mathematical reasoning, teachers need to focus less on the computation side of math, and more on helping kids determine which pieces of information are useful, which are extraneous and how it all fits into the real world.

“Students come into our classrooms with loads of experiences mathematically that we don’t anticipate,” Meyer said. “We need to draw those out of students and build on those.” His strategy is to ditch textbooks that lay out problems in neat, simple ways that easily fit into predetermined formulas, and instead get students talking about a problem that draws on their intuition. For example, he will show students a picture of two hills. One hill is taller and the other is longer. The he’ll ask, “Which hill is steeper?” It’s a deceptively simple question that provokes a big discussion because there are good arguments for both answers. Out of that discussion students develop an understanding of slope.

Problems like this one engage even the most math-intimidated student because it starts from what Meyer’s calls “the level playing field of intuition.” All students have seen hills and can talk about what they are seeing. Gradually the math enters the conversation to make it easier to discuss. The math serves the conversation, not the other way around, Meyer said.

“In a good argument kids walk away feeling like they’re a thinking thing,” Meyers said. That may seem obvious, but so much of teaching math through a computational lens asks students to find the right equation and plug in numbers. It doesn’t ask them to be big thinkers; but it’s precisely the experience of grappling with a problem that sparks curiosity, motivates students and develops the patient problem-solving that is so lacking in much of the population.

Watch Meyer’s funny and enlightening Tedx talk for a more comprehensive explanation of how he teaches.

  • Kendra Hunding

    Yes! I teach grade 4/5 math and when I started using our math curriculum for basically practice work sheets, and designing (or redesigning) my own problem-solving exercises and activities for kids that were relevant and even fun for them, their engagement and acheivement really took off. It really does level the playing field. In fact kids who were good with formulas and algorithms were the most resistant because it made them slow down and reason.They benefitted enormously from being pushed to reason through the math rather than just apply a formula and as a result their work became more accurate. The kids who had previously struggled and hated math became much more active participants because they began to not feel defeated from the start. I am a survivior of “new math” from the 60s and I dreaded it. Teaching this way has made math a favorite subject to teach and the kids in my class each year say math is their favorite subject. Thank goodness for teachers like Dan who care and refuse to accept the status quo and choose to do what’s best for their students and then go out and advocate for others to follow suit.

  • Thom Markham

    One solution: Use the Mathematical Practices of the CCSS to encourage slow learning and perseverance. Create a rubric for each of the 8 practices, the first of which is perseverance and attention to detail. I’m not a math teacher but I’ve made up a math practices rubric for PBL teachers to use in math projects. When you use the rubric, it allows you to grade math process and approach as well as math content.

  • Shiny Johnson

    Thanks for sharing this blog Katrina. Math is considered as a tough subject by many students. Involving conversation and engaging students with simple explanation would give better results. When we make the students to get involved in mathematics class and make learning fun then they will grasp easily and start solving problems easily. Dan Meyer’s approach is great.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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