“They just add all the numbers. It doesn’t matter what the problem says.”
This is what a third grade teacher told my co-worker Regina Payne while she was visiting her classroom as an instructional coach. She didn’t really believe that the kids would do that, so she had the class come sit on the carpet and gave them a word problem. Sure enough, kids immediately pulled numbers out of the problem and started adding.
She thought to herself, “Oh no. I have to do something to get these kids to think about the situation.”
She brainstormed for a few moments, opened up Powerpoint, and typed the following:
Some girls entered a school art competition. Fewer boys than girls entered the competition.
She projected her screen and asked, “What math do you see in this problem?”
“There isn’t any math. There aren’t any numbers.”
She smiles. “Sure there’s math here. Read it again and think about it.”
Finally a kid exclaims, “Oh! There are some girls. That means it’s an amount!”
“And there were some boys, too. Fewer boys than girls,” another child adds.
“What do you think fewer boys than girls means?” she asks.
“There were less boys than girls,” one of the students responds.
“Ok, so what do we know already?”
“There were some girls and boys, and the number of boys is less than the number of girls.”
“Look at that,” she points out, “All that math reasoning and there aren’t even any numbers in the problem. How many boys and girls could have entered into the competition?”
At this point the students start tossing out estimates, but the best part is that their estimates are based on the mathematical relationship in the problem. If a student suggested 50 girls, then the class knew the number of boys had to be an amount less than 50. If a student suggested 25 girls, then the number of boys drops to an amount less than 25.
When it seems like the students are ready, she makes a new slide that says:
135 girls entered a school art competition. Fewer boys than girls entered the competition.
Acting very curious, she asks, “Hmm, does this change what we know at all?”
A student points out, “We know how many girls there are now. 135 girls were in the competition.”
“So what does that tell us?”
Another student responds, “Now that we know how many girls there are, we know that the number of boys is less than 135.”
This is where the class starts a lively debate about how many boys there could be. At first the class thinks it could be any number from 0 up to 134. But then some students start saying that it can’t be 0 because that would mean no boys entered the competition. Since it says fewer boys than girls, they take that to mean that at least 1 boy entered the competition. This is when another student points out that actually the number needs to be at least 2 because it says boys and that is a plural noun.
Stop for a moment. Look at all this great conversation and math reasoning from a class that moments before was mindlessly adding all the numbers they could find in a word problem?
Once the class finishes their debate about the possible range for the number of boys, my co-worker shows them a slide that says:
135 girls entered a school art competition. Fifteen fewer boys than girls entered the competition.
“What new information do you see? How does it change your understanding of the situation?”
“Now we know something about the boys,” one of the students replies.
“Yeah, we know there are 15 boys,” says another.
“No, there are 15 fewer, not 15.”
Another debate begins. Some students see 15 and immediately go blind regarding the word fewer. It takes some back and forth for the students to convince each other that 15 fewer means that the number of boys is not actually 15 but a number that is 15 less than the number of girls, 135.
To throw a final wrench in to the discussion, she asks, “So what question could I ask you about this situation?”
To give you a heads up, after presenting to this one class she ended up repeating this experience in numerous classrooms across our district. After sharing it with hundreds of students, only one student out of all of them ever guessed the question she actually asked.
Do you think you know what it is? Can you guess what the students thought it would be?
I’ll give you a moment, just in case.
So all but one student across the district guessed, “How many boys entered the art competition?”
That of course is the obvious question, so instead she asked, “How many children entered the art competition?”
Young minds, completely blown.
At first there were cries of her being unfair, but then they quickly got back on track figuring out the answer using their thorough understanding of the situation.
And that is how my co-worker got our district to start using what she dubbed Numberless Word Problems – a scaffolded approach to presenting word problems that gets kids thinking before they ever have numbers or a question to act on.
Recently we shared this strategy with our district interventionists and several of them went off and tried it that week. They wrote back sharing stories of how excited and engaged their students were in solving problems that would have seemed too difficult otherwise. This seems like a great activity structure for struggling students because it starts off in a nonthreatening way – no numbers, how ’bout that? – and lets them build confidence before they ever have to solve anything.
Do I think that every word problem should be presented this way? No. But I do think this is a great way to prompt rich discussion and get students to notice and grapple with the relationships in problem situations and to observe how the language helps us understand those relationships. To me this is a scaffold that can help get students to attend to information and language. As many teachers like to say, standardized tests are as much reading tests as they are math tests.
Perhaps you can use this activity structure when students are seeing a new problem type for the first time and then fade away from using it over time. Or maybe you have students who have been doing great understanding word problems, but lately they’re rushing through them and making careless errors. This might be an opportunity to use this structure to slow them down and get them thinking again.
Either way, if you do try this out, I’d love to hear how it went.
[UPDATE 1: I wrote a follow up post about writing numberless word problems if you’d like to learn more.]
[UPDATE 2: I’ve created a page on my blog devoted to numberless word problems. Check it out for more resources.]