Focus on Math

Helping children become mathematicians!

Communication: Recording a Problem Solving Discussion June 29, 2011

One of the things I learned this year was the advantage of recording student ideas as they shared strategies and solutions after solving an “rich” math problem [and I will restate my personal definition of a “rich” problem as one with a) many solutions; b) one solution but many strategies for finding it; or c) both many solutions and many possible strategies] .

For most of the school year as I would be working with students, I would record the students’ strategies and solutions on the chalkboard. My general rule of thumb is to have students tell me what they did, and I would do the recording. This was done very specifically so that the students had to practice verbalizing their thoughts — they usually found it easier to write things down with pictures and symbols that to tell me how to write things down.

I carefully recorded all that the students would tell me, but then, before my next class of students would come, I had to erase the board and get ready for another round. It occurred to me during the year that I was missing out on an important scaffolding step for students: if I were to record the work on large chart paper rather than the chalkboard, then the work could be hung for all to see could be referred to in later classes.

I should point out that in the particular case depicted in the photo, the T-chart on the right was done after the students had shared various solutions. It is important that, toward the end of the discussion, the teacher pose questions that can help the students move to a “bigger picture” — in this case I was moving toward an “n-rule” with the class.

So, that is how I began recording the discussion. I even got to the point where I printed off a large copy of the problem the students were working on. (NOTE: Thanks to Sharlene K’s brilliant idea, I now always write the student problems on the computer and copy and paste to fill a page. I usually only have to print off a few sheets, then use a paper cutter to cut them apart. The students begin each session by gluing the question strip into their exercise books — no one has to take the time to copy out a question, while it ensures that there is a copy of the question on the page.) Making a large copy of the problem and gluing it onto the recording sheet was easy since I was typing out the question anyway. I hung the chart paper on the side wall where it could be viewed. Each week, on Wednesdays, as I worked with the students, I taped the new work for a class on top of that class’ previous week’s work.

It was soon apparent that recording the discussions of solutions and strategies was a good idea. Students referred to solving previous problems (knowing the solution was still visible) making connections between one problem and another. I also referred to the previous problems, reminding them of strategies they could not clearly recall.

Even though I was doing this in an elementary setting, the principle of recording student solutions would work at ANY grade level. I HIGHLY recommend recording the class discussions on chart paper! I think you, too, will find it valuable for students and yourself.

Mathematically yours,

PS:The problem on the page, used for a grade 3 class, is this:

Jacob, Charlie, Kara, and Heather shared a bag of Skittles.
They each ate the same amount. There were 2 left over, and
they gave those to Jacob’s little sister. How many Skittles could
have been in the bag?


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