Have You Done a Good Math Problem Lately?

Have You Done a Good Math Problem Lately?

Child Reading
photo by Tim Pierce. (Click image for original)

In work or social settings it is common to hear the question, “Have you read a good book lately?” The question often starts a lively sharing session about books that elicit pleasure, profundity, or insight. A population that regularly engages in these discussions is an indicator of a literate society.

As those appointed by society to help children become literate, educators accept a priori that reading is important. They do their best to provide students with the requisite skills that enable students to read. However, good reading instruction goes beyond basic skills and seeks to inculcate a love of great books and a passion for reading. The hope is that students will choose to read voluntarily, “just for the fun of it.”

It is safe to say that few people have heard the question that is the title of this blog in a work or social setting—unless they work at AIMS. Any statement that includes both the terms “good” and “math problem” is an oxymoron to most literate people who view math as important and utilitarian, but not enjoyable. Unfortunately this is also true of most educators who can readily share a favorite book, but would be hard pressed to come up with a favorite math problem. Those who relish good math problems as much as good books are part of a very small, but important, minority. They realize that math has more than just utilitarian value—it is also a subject that can be enjoyable, and they want to foster this positive attitude in their students so that they might do math voluntarily “just for the fun of it.”

With the new Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice informing math teaching, there is an incentive for introducing students to good math problems or tasks. The first of these standards challenges students to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. This is easier to do with fun problems. AIMS has a number of problem-solving books full of these types of problems (Problem Solving: Just for the Fun of It!, Problem Solving Just for the Fun of It! Book Two, and the Solve It series).

To get teachers started, this week’s blog puzzle is “Total Count-Ability.” This is a great problem that can be solved in at least five valid ways depending on the assumptions you make. Last week’s puzzle was “Cab Conundrums,” which is another good and hopefully enjoyable math problem. Try one or both of these problems out so you can reply in the affirmative when asked “Have you done a good math problem lately?”

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