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Patient Problem Solvers – Ted Talk with Dan Meyers

Let’s face it – not everything that students need to learn in school is easy for them. But wait. If this is knowledge and skills what we want our students to learn, remember, and use in the future (the reason for universal K-12 education right?) then shouldn’t we be teaching them in a way that is intuitive, useful, and easy to remember and use. 

Man Meyers has a great video on Ted Talks called “Math class needs a make-over”. I would like to extend and expand this to all subjects and say that our education system really needs to be remodeled to fit our information age learners (Books and books could be written on that, but let’s stick to this slice of it for now).

Some of the stuff that is hard to teach are things our students need for life. They will continue to not retain it if we do not change the way we teach it. Do you remember any high school science or math. One phrase I go back to is “When you bring the multiplied number to the other side it becomes a division”….Sorry it what? It magically turns into a division?! It wasn’t until University math that it actually clicked why I would divide. It wasn’t magic – it didn’t “turn into” a division.

A simple example of this would be 4×3=12 and 4=12/3 . Knowing the rule is just muscle memory. Understanding the rules is creating logical arguments to explain basic intuition.

Dan explains 5 symptoms you are doing math reasoning wrong, and I believe that steps 1 to 3 apply to any class (history, geography…) and 4 -5 for any science or math class.

1) lack of initiative
2) lack of perseverance
3) lack of retention
4) Aversion to word problems
5) eagerness for formula

It is all about the presentation of the question that makes the difference between students feeling lost and feeling involved. If you present a 4 step textbook question guiding students through the steps there are 3 problems that I see :

1) you are taking away any room for creative discussion or thought and therefore taking away the students need to really think of the whys and hows of the question.

2) you are scaring students who are intimidated by complex questions with lots of words (Dan states that 99% of his students have an aversion to word problems).

3) you are congratulating students for following steps instead of congratulating them on their thinking skills.

An interesting connection Dan makes is to director of the TV show “Deadwood”, David Milch. David has sworn off creating contemporary dramas such as “2 and a half men”. His reason was that it shapes our neural pathways to expect simple solutions for life’s problems – solutions that can be wrapped up in 22 minutes. He describes it as an impatience with irresolution, and that is something we do not want with our students. Instead we want to be creating a exploratory process that end with a resolution that is not limited to one or two classes. It may end with ideas, research, an experiment, or an equation created by the class but it shouldn’t end with an answer from the back of the textbook.

So let’s move towards creating patient problem solvers. Let’s take lessons from video games – where students will spend days or months on end to complete missions. Let’s take lessons from social media – where students will contribute, provoke, and learn from shared resources. Let’s give students the shortest possible question and let them develop the conversation around it. Let’s follow Einstein’s advice :

The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.

Let’s get our students involved in forming problem and questions. Do you want your students to write an essay about a recent novel study? Teach them what makes a good essay question (researchability, answerable…), and then develop a question as a class. Do you want your students to learn about osmosis? Serve tea in your classroom and explore what happens when the sugar stops dissolving.

Dan provides a few solutions :

1) Use multimedia – there is such an incredible amount of resources available to be used as teaching materials.

2) Encourage student intuition - bring questions down to their most basic level an provide an opportunity for all students to get involved in the conversation.

3) Ask the shortest question you can – give students a chance to go on tangents, question, wonder about possibilities and most importantly – Make mistakes!

4) Let students build the problem – or question. Because true learning happens from understanding the intution.

5) Be less helpful – let students direct the learning. Let students collaborate. Let them find the answers.

Can you expand upon this list? What works in your classroom?

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