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Persistence in Solving Math Problems

I’m currently teaching a course to a middle-school math teacher in Teaching Mathematics through Problem Solving. I’ve taught this course a number of times before. One of the things I do is to ask students to work on problems which I think they will find difficult, but doable. My students – all teachers themselves – become frustrated if they encounter a problem that takes them more than a few minutes. They are so used to routine problems that will yield to a known method of attack, that they don’t know what they are capable of.

I think it may be sometimes better to assign one difficult problem rather than 10 routine ones. And we need to get students to commit to trying to solve a problem even if they have to put it away for a while, let it percolate in their unconscious, and come back to it later. At the risk of sounding like an old fogy, students today are very much used to expecting instant gratification. We need to teach them the rewards of persistence.

1 comment:

profmd said...

I agree that this is one of our greatest challenges in math education. This syndrome comes from the "instant", "passive" culture we live in: fueled by Fast Foods, watching TV shorts instead of reading books, being great fans of sport, but not participating, etc., etc. If our teachers are not even willing to stick to a problem, how can they encourage and pass on the values of perseverance to their students?

In Jan this year I similarly did a Problem Solving course with teachers with materials from the Junior SA Math Olympiad, and had similar experiences to yours though made some progress over time.

However, what perturbed me was that many of them in their final reviews wrote that though they felt they'd learned a lot and become more confident in their own problem solving abilities, that the problems we'd discussed were much too hard for kids at the junior high school level! Though every year, we have many students in the 1st round (and even in the 2nd round) getting perfect scores!

This brings me to another problem we face: it seems that many teachers completely underestimate their students and project rather low expectations on them, instead of challenging them. So apart from changing their own attitudes towards problem solving, we also need to tackle changing their perceptions of their students.