I’m trying to notice!

This week, I tried out my first Problem of the Week from The Math Forum thanks to their free trial. I have been reading about these from other people and their awesome experiences with them so I wanted to get in on the game. 

I started with “You think you’re teacher is tough?” I like the idea of “I notice, I wonder” and figured it was just what my students need. My students, as I’m sure many others, just look for the question, look for some numbers and just start doing math. They don’t re-read, they don’t analyze, they don’t think about the situation, they just want to find an answer and be done. I took the suggestion of how to start out, and took out the question and just posted the situation. I then asked the students to write down something they noticed. I was faced with a ton of blank stares, so I tried to explain what that meant. This was way more difficult than I thought because I didn’t want to give a ton of examples. I wanted them to think for themselves. I think I ended up saying something like “Anything that comes to your mind when you think about this situation.” That seemed to work a little better. After a few minutes, we shared and got some really interesting “notices.” Obvious ones, funny ones, deeper thinking ones, etc. Good. This was good.

We then moved on to “I wonder.” This was easier, and also provided many good questions and discussion. We were really discussing the situation, taking it apart, having fun, making sure we understood, questioning each other. It was pretty great.

Then I finally gave them the question. Cue the Darth Vader music. It was like I had asked them to take every book in the library, move them outside and then back in again. All of the inquiry, engagement, interest went right out the window. Very few students were willing to try anything, write anything down or discuss with their peers. It was a little devastating. Throughout the week, I did this with each group with the same result. With much prodding, I did get them to find the answer.

I can’t figure it out. Everyone said these PoW are so engaging and students love to get to work on them, and their interesting and fun. Not for my students. Ask them to actually do any work, forget it. Was it the problem I picked? Was it my delivery? Was it the fact that their 8th graders? Was it the fact that they are not used to teachers encouraging them to solve problems with any means possible? Were they uncomfortable with the openness of it? Was it the fact that this was not actual math class, but workshop block? (Workshop is designed to give teachers a chance to do something enriching, out of our normal curriculum. Most students think of it as “free time” no matter what we tell them or ask them to do.)

I’m going to try another one. I still have faith that these problems, and “I notice, I wonder” will help them. I think.


5 thoughts on “I’m trying to notice!

  1. I think it’s just a process with students. Some of them just get used to getting things done so they can move on, and not wanting to spend time on the thinking process. They also may not have had someone demonstrate their thinking process through a similar problem before, so they just get frustrated with where to being. I have the same problems with my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

  2. Let’s re-frame…
    What you found out is not what the kids could not do…you found out what they can do. You didn’t get frustrated at what they did, you got frustrated at what you could not make them do. What you found, is that that it will take many baby steps to get them to where you want them…are you willing to take the small steps? Or are you going to force them to leap into the unknown?

    Did you make them do it? Or do it along with them? Model?

    The first year I tried PBL I quit after a month…the kids couldn’t do it.
    The next year I went two months and quit…what a waste of time…
    Third year I made it three months…maybe they weren’t ready, maybe I had to just wait it out…nah…
    Fourth year they started to finally come around..but was it worth my time? Nothing looked successful! I quit after about five months.
    Fifth year…I thought if successful teachers I look up to do this, it has to be me..what am I missing. I just pushed through. About May all of a sudden magic occurred.
    Sixth year…I realized that I had to unschool and reschool them. The students had been trained for seven years to not think on their own…who was I to think I could fix that with one assignment. I started to unschool them to get hem back to where I wanted them. It was messy (and still is).

    You can;t take someone who sits on a sofa and throw them into a marathon. You can’t take kids who have been led through assignments and worksheets by previous teachers and expect them to run on their own. Patience, baby steps, more patience.

    It’s not you.

    It’s not them.

    They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing because of what has been expected of them in the past.

    What happened is normal…yes I know that sucks but well…

    And I cannot recommend enough…do it with them…for weeks. Think aloud, work publically, collaborate with them as peers.

    They will get there…

    • Paul, This was really helpful to me! Thank you for sharing your story and for persevering! I know I just have to keep going and try to “Un”teach them what they’ve been doing for so long.

  3. I haven’t tried any POWs yet, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. The student I had last year refused to engage their minds in any way. If they couldn’t get the answer in one step in under 5 seconds, they gave up.

    They have been trained over the years to NOT think. The first hand up gets called on to give a 1 word answer. As a result, they don’t see the value in more than that. They WILL get better, I promise you.

    You just have to train them to give you what you want, whether it’s a well-thought answer or working with 1 in depth problem for an hour. Stick with it and don’t forget about scaffolding.


  4. Great post, and some great replies. I find some classes I take over have had their hands held too much previously and it is frustrating as they want it to continue. It is not the way to create independent Thinkers!

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