What Do Kids Do When the Going Gets Tough?

There are students in your classroom who often know how to do the math before you get to the lesson.  You know which ones I’m talking about.  They complete work in record time.  They get the highest scores on all the tests.  At conference time their parents might say “He’s bored,” “She’s not feeling challenge,” or “This curriculum is too easy.”  It’s true.  There are students who really excel at math and over the years we’ve wondered how we might best meet their needs.  Enter the adaptive computerized tests like NWEA.  You’d think these would help by giving you a list of things to work on.  Not so much.  Because these students are so advanced that they’ve successfully solved or, in some cases, guessed their way into math that they might not be developmentally ready for.

But there is a skill that these students often lack.  I watched it happen in my classroom today.  Today was problem solving day.  My teaching partner and I have made an effort to include more developed problem solving work in the classroom and we do these problems in pairs and small groups.  I used a Problem of the Month from the Inside Mathematics website to build on the work we’d been doing with fractions.  Three groups of my highest scorers got the more advanced problem.  I wanted to challenge them.  I wanted them to be able to go home and say “I was challenged in math today!” So what happened?

Two groups worked diligently.  They didn’t really know what to do at first so they started experimenting and talking looking for an access point.  Those two groups eventually sat down together to share strategies and, even though they arrived at different answers, they talked about how the margin of error was small and the problem was challenging, so they thought the outcome was okay given the task.  The third group imploded.  Whining.  Moaning.  Frustration.

I checked in with group three several times to see if I could coach them, give a hint, or just encourage.

“This problem is soooooo hard,” they moaned.

“Isn’t that great!?” I said.  “You’re able to use your thinking skills and be challenged in math today.”

They glared at me.  My error was clear.  It seemed that even though these were the same students who loved to talk about how bored they were in math class, how easy the work was, how fast they got done, they didn’t really want that to change.  They didn’t enjoy being challenged or being put in a place of not knowing.  Math has been so easy for so long they didn’t know what to do when it wasn’t easy any more.

Perseverance is a skill that every student needs.  A skill that our “smartest” students may lack.  If they’ve never been challenged or had to work hard will they know what to do when faced with a challenge?  How will we ensure that every student gets the opportunity to work hard in our classroom?

UPDATE!  So that was yesterday.  Today we finally had time to sit down and debrief.  It was a great whole class discussion with lots of description, juicy math terms, and some good old fashioned problem solving skills.  And what about group three you may ask?  Well they eventually solved the problem and realized that all of those steps and dead ends that they had explored actually helped them come to a final answer.  Plus they learned something!  I like it.  I really, really like it. : )

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