Have you Done a Good Math Problem Lately?

I spent some time with my family this past weekend. When we get together we often talk about books we are currently reading, a common topic of conversation amongst friends and family, and even in my posts on this blog. For example, I recently discussed the importance of reading and how common it is for highly successful people to read for a good portion of every day.

Years ago, a mentor of mine at the AIMS Center turned my thinking upside down when he asked a group of us, “What good math problem have you done lately?” His question was much different from asking about books we had read, but we all chuckled at this question. However, I would never forget that question and it may well be why I work on being a recreational reader and mathematician to this day.

History tells us that some mathematical discoveries happened because people were just passing time doing calculations recreationally, much akin to passing time by reading a good book. My point is, helping students become lifelong readers and mathematicians is a responsibility that goes with being a teacher.

I often share with students that mathematicians did not necessarily love to do calculations but they were driven by the findings that ensued because of their calculations. One of my favorite quotes to share with students is from the mathematician John Napier, most noted for inventing logarithms, when he said: “There is nothing so troublesome to mathematical practice than multiplications, divisions, square and cubical extractions of great numbers…I began therefore to consider how I might remove those hindrances.” Napier was in search of a quicker way to do complicated mathematics so he could get to the end of the story.

Common questions may lead you and your students to some amazing places. Share great books and math problems with them. Following Napier’s thoughts from his quote, try sharing another way to multiply with your students, such as Russian Peasant Method. It will have them thinking for sure, and I think they will have an answer to the question, “What good math problem have you done lately?” Common questions lead to good classroom discourse. Have you done a good science investigation lately?


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