When I teach math, if the objective involves problem solving, I never use the problems in the book as my initial examples. Most do not have any real meaning for students. Generic problems can be used to practice later, but students need to know how this skill appears in the real world. If they cannot see the correlation between what you are teaching in class and their lives, they will often ask you Why do we have to learn this? Therefore, I try to figure out where this concept shows up in the world of the student, and I even integrate the names of some of the students into the problem.
Here’s a specific example. I was once teaching a class of eighth-grade special education students how to take a word problem and turn it into an algebraic equation. I began the lesson by asking the students if any of them had been to a movie lately. One student, Camry, indicated that she had seen a certain movie. I asked how much she paid to get in, to which she replied $8.00. We visualized there were two other students attending the movie and that Camry was paying for all three. (To which she replied, I’m not about to do that!) At least I had her attention! I asked her what snacks she purchased. She replied, popcorn, Coke, and M&Ms. We estimated the cost of the popcorn as $6.00, the coke at $4.00, and the M&Ms at $2.50. We then set up the following equation x=3($8.00) + $6.00 +$4.00 + $2.50.
Every student was motivated to find out exactly how much money Camry had spent, and I accomplished my goals, which were two-fold: (1) to demonstrate to students how to create and solve equations and (2) to show how this math concept can be applied in real life. That is what problem- and project-based learning do very well for the brain!
What The Research Says
Projects enable students to plan their time and develop research skills, while providing them with choice and responsibility (Gregory & Chapman, 2013).
When teachers are creating opportunities for students to observe, make inferences, and share their discoveries with peers, they are building the problem-solving skills advocated by the national standards for social studies (Melber & Hunter, 2010).
Educators should use authentic tools as projects, discussions, and portfolios in addition to paper-and-pencil tests to demonstrate students’ comprehension of mathematics (Ronis, 2006).
Make It Happen
- Have students create a timeline that shows a geologic history of life. One meter on the timeline could equal one million years. This scale will show the vast amount of time with no life on earth and the relative success of sustained life for the dinosaurs. Younger students could draw rather than write out timeline events (Tate & Phillips, 2011, p.102).
- Have students use advanced searches to gather information from a variety of print and digital sources that could aid them in solving a problem or completing an assigned project. Students could evaluate the usefulness of each source in light of the problem or project and the audience. Have students integrate the information, without plagiarism, into the text so that they are not overly dependent on any one source (Tate, 2014a).
- During a science or technical experiment, have students formulate a hypothesis. Have them collect data and use corroborating sources to verify the data. Have students then analyze the data to determine if they support or disprove the hypothesis. Have them draw conclusions and, if possible, use other sources of information to support those conclusions (Tate, 2014a).
For more examples of instructional activities that engage students using project-based and problem-based learning consult the 3rd edition of my best-selling book, Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites.