Tonight I was working with an eighth grade student I have been tutoring for a while. He recently had a quiz in math class that he got a D on due to a couple of plug and play mistakes. I asked, “did you ask your teacher if you could fix your mistakes and get back some credit?” He said, actually she gave me a bunch of worksheets to complete. He then proceeded to pull out a packet of 6 pages front and back on the chapter that he could complete for extra credit. Hmm. I will not comment yet.

He said, we can just breeze through them because this is stuff we already did. I caught his meaning. It didn’t matter if he knew how to do the math, it would never be on the test again. Double hmm.

So we sat down to look at the mountain of snow that had accumulated before us. We worked out a few problems on the first page and then I said, “well let’s go over the word problems because those are the ones you can’t check on your own.” My dear student has found that he can very quickly “complete” his math homework using a math app called Photo Math. And let me tell you, I don’t blame him. If I was forced to complete 18 problems that were exactly alike, I would look for a more efficient way to get on with my night also.

We looked at the first word problem and I found myself having a Deja voo moment. I’ve seen problems like these before. As I worked to wrap my brain around the question, I realized the problem I was having was that I just didn’t care what the answer was. And if I didn’t care, he certainly didn’t care.

Here is the first problem we looked at:

“Health Club Currently 96 members participate in the morning workout, and this number has been increasing by 2 people per week. Currently, 80 members participate in the afternoon workout, and this number has been decreasing by 3 people per week. In how many weeks will the number of people working out in the morning be double the number of people working out in the afternoon?”

I’m not embarrassed to say, I had no idea how to approach this. I scribbled down a bunch of equations, but I was limited by the fact that I knew (the game of school dictates) this word problem somehow needed to match the problems above it that we had been working out. I couldn’t recall the format of how to set up the equation using all the information I was given and have it “match” the previous problems. I also hadn’t solved a problem like this since math class which was many many years ago(no I’m not willing to divulge just how many). Does that say something about the value of such a problem?

I am genuinely (what’s the word I am looking for) confused? angry? Baffled? that our students time is not more valuable to us.

But that really goes back to the question, what math do students need to know to be contributing members of a society? That’s a topic for another time:)

To address the Photo Math app, there has been a lot of hype about “non-google-able” problems. I agree, I want my students involved in experiences that require them to think and apply their learning. But most of all, I want their learning to be relevant(to them now or in the near future). This is definitely a filter we need to put our tasks through.

The problem referenced above would probably make it through the non-google-able filter, but it would never make it past the latter.

So let’s try a word problem that I might come across involving a health club:

I want to start working out, but I need to find a health club that meets several criteria:

Has childcare, Offers fitness classes, Is open late, is around $50/month or less.

I narrow it down to two. The names are Chesterfield Family Center and the Pat Jones YMCAPat Jones YMCA. Click on the links to go to their websites. Compare the two clubs and provide a recommendation for which I should join.

Some things to keep in mind: Base the cost on a family size of 3: 1 adult and 2 children. Cost difference between paying all at once and paying monthly: Do I qualify for a Corporate membership discount? What does it cost if I want to bring a friend with me?

How many people might encounter a problem similar to this in their future? I’m willing to bet the answer is significantly higher than if I had asked the same question about the original problem on the worksheet.

If I wanted a word problem that assessed the content in the original, I would probably go with something like this: 3 Act Ditch Diggers. Should this be considered a word problem? Should we re-brand that phrase?