Mathematical formulas written with chalk on blackboard

You are not going to break math. Just try something.

I was working with a student the other day on some Algebra 2 concepts and the kid was struggling. I felt for the poor guy, but I couldn’t help myself and blurted out, “This must be what you feel like when you watch your grandmother use her cell phone.” He immediately looked at me, brow furrowed and head cocked. I told him, “You’re not going to break math. Just try something.” He smiled and put his head back down.

The more I reflect on that analogy, the more I like it. I see so many students whose main stumbling block   when problem solving is their hesitancy. They’re not sure what to do, so they don’t do anything. That’s exactly what’s happening to grandma when she’s trying to remember how to find something on her phone but fearful of breaking it, so her finger just kind of hangs there limply over the screen. I can’t help but see that same self-doubt in the tips of my students’ pencils mutely frozen over their pages.

Contrast those hovering pencils with what happens when grandma hands the phone over for some help: Adolescent fingers flick this way and that, and the problem is soon solved. Because the kid was intimately familiar with the app in question and what needed to be done? Of course not. Because the kid messed around and figured it out? Absolutely. I only wish my students could carry that same problem-solving fluency over into their math work.

So why don’t they? One easy reason is that they might not have the skills. After all, it makes sense to be hesitant if you don’t know what to do. But I find that many of my students do understand how to take the algebraic step they need to take or know the formula they need to apply. What are they so easily able to do on the phone that they won’t do in a math problem? Arguably, two things: 

  1. They look for context clues on the screen that they do understand.
  2. They experiment and make liberal use of the BACK button.

You should look at math problems in exactly the same way. On your phone, you know what that X in the left corner means. You know that three-lined hamburger icon will give you a menu when you press it. You know to swipe when you see that arrow. In the same way, work to build up that same recognition in math: When you see two fractions separated by an equal sign, you can cross multiply. When you have a long equation that equals zero, you can try to factor. When there’s a radical in the denominator, you multiply by the conjugate.  

Another commonality between navigating your phone and a math problem is that you can’t necessarily see where the next step is going to take you. On your phone you don’t know what that menu is going to say or what the next screen will look like, but it never stops you from pressing or swiping, does it? You’ll worry about that when you get there and make another decision then. Or – if you’ve made a mistake, you’ll just go back to where you were. Again – that’s the perfect mindset for solving a math problem: What happens after you cross multiply? Or factor? Or rationalize? Well, you’ll take a look at what you’ve got after that step and make another good decision. Or maybe you’ve – oh, no! – made a mistake! Good news – your pencil has a back button on the other end of it. Use it and try something else.

So the next time you’re stuck on a math problem, I hope you glance at your phone for a distraction but instead remember this blog and, instead, just try something in that problem. Remember – you’re not going to break math and you’ve got a built-in back button!

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