Teaching Word Problems

“A customer wants 10,000 3-part NCR forms, sized 5.5 x 8.5. They are printed 4-up. How many press sheets are required?”

Whenever I see a complaint about Common Core on-line, the question usually has something to do with math and is most often a word problem that has stumped the parents. This kind of annoys me because I work in a place where there are an endless amount of word problems like the one above and all too often my coworkers prove that they are incapable of finding the correct answer.

One in particular likes to claim that he’s great at doing these calculations: “it’s simple math,” he says. He’s the one who has double and quadruple printed jobs on a number of occasions. He almost did it again a few weeks ago when he calculated based on what the paperwork said (4-up) vs the reality of the plate and paper he was using (8-up). Our other pressman readily admits that he’s incapable of doing his own calculations and lord help us if the production manager does his math wrong!

“Addendum: There are 2000 forms in the attic from the previous order that need to be used as part of this order”.

I think it’s sad that most of the folks who are bashing Common Core’s curriculum are the ones who were part of the generation that said “Math is hard so why should I learn it?” Or maybe I’m making an assumption about their feelings towards math simply because it’s that generation’s children who are being force-fed STEM because we as a country NEED more Engineers.

Up until I graduated high school I loved math and word problems were my favorite. Turns out that my love of math only went as far as doing problems which reflect the visible world (i.e. Algebra II). Stumbling through Calculus my senior year and then essentially failing Statistics in College thus ended all my desires to deal with obscure mathematics as a career. But, the usage of mathematics isn’t obscure in ANY industry. Fewer and fewer strictly secretaries exist anymore–just about all receptionists have a “day job”. Ours sells the rubber stamps. That happens to be the only job I could think of which doesn’t involve even the simplest calculations.

“The customer wants their forms to be packaged in 100s. How many packages of 100 must we end up with? Did the Customer Service Rep (CSR) accurately break down this calculation on the work order?”

Every kid at some point during their mathematics career asks aloud: “Why do I even need to learn this crap?!” and “I’ll never use this stuff again!” The latter can be true for a lot of mathematics, but not the most basic lessons. Not the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that is taught during the elementary years. And here is where I’ve found the problem lies. While in school I was often the tutor, especially for math homework and more often than not I found the the problem wasn’t the current lesson, but that the foundations just weren’t there. How can a student apply algebraic functions to a word problem when they aren’t able to translate a word problem?

On a similar note, while flipping  through a 3rd grade math workbook my parents had bought for my brother to help him out, I was surprised to see chapters labeled “Algebra”. Looking at what was within these chapters I had an epiphany: Get rid of the damn blank!

You see, in 2nd and 3rd grade, students are taught beginner Algebra via this type of equation: 8 + _ = 14. They’re taught to solve it using Algebraic principles and they come up with 6. Woohoo! BUT it isn’t until 7th grade (in my case) that letters are used instead of a blank and suddenly the kid who could solve 8 + _ = 14 has no idea what to do with 8 + X =14 and are certain that the answer is different when X is changed to Y. I think we could do a lot to improve our mathematics scores is teachers simply introduced the letters a lot earlier and used words like Algebra to describe this from day one rather than treating it as though it’s some mysterious new mathematical idea.

Get rid of the Blank

Anyway, sorry for the digression, but this is one of my largest soapboxes. Where was I? Oh yes, word problems.

I think that parents can do their children a world of good if they simply take them to work with them and show them all the ways that they use math in their everyday lives. I think it is silly to expect all children to become experts in Calculus because some simply don’t have the aptitude for it and will find their dream job in the arts or humanities and that is perfectly wonderful. But starving artists should know how to do the basic bookkeeping to know where their expenses are and to know how to calculate how much paint/paper/glue they’ll need to manage their inventory. So long as word problems remain a foreign concept to students and one that their parents want to fight, American industry will be flooded with people who might be able to run a machine, but are incapable of knowing how much of the product they actually need to produce.

Note: I do not wish to argue about the pros and cons of Common Core here. I’m simply stating my experience with specific questions that have been brought to the media’s attention (usually by a celebrity). I think that all students in the US need to be taught from the same curriculum regardless of the state/city they reside in because I live in a military town with a lot of transfer students. One of my cousins, back in the late 80’s, early 90’s was a military brat who moved from Gettysburg, PA to Charleston, SC. He was in roughly the 4th grade and they were studying the US Civil War in both of his classes. It was taught so differently that he was absolutely certain that they were two different wars.


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