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Why math word problems matter
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 18, 2014 10:41 AM

Before the Common Core State Standards, there were word problems in math class. The implementation of the new Standards did not remove those types of problems from workbooks and lectures across the country, much to the dismay of students for whom math (and specifically language-based computation) is a struggle. Despite the shuddering induced by what seems to be a challenging math problem, word scenarios are vital to math education. These problems represent reasoning in mathematics, and it's this portion that math teachers want their students to retain most. However, some argue students aren't getting the full picture of reasoning, and that's why they struggle through class with frustration and a desire to be anywhere else. Can math teachers work with the Common Core to improve math instruction and thus reasoning abilities? Yes, it can definitely be done. 

Making math about the real world
Not all students will go on to get a degree, or even a degree that requires frequent use of math. Most students will learn the basics in K-12, then use only a portion of it for work down the road. That means those students will likely not recall the formula to find the area of a triangle or the circumference of a circle. However, they can and should remember how to reason mathematically, according to Dan Meyers, a high school math teacher.

In his Ted Talk, Meyers argued for the importance of grounding students in math reasoning. Although doing so is more challenging than feeding formulas, once learned, students retain the knowledge. When they forget a formula, they can look to their reasoning skills to solve problems. If they forget both, solving math problems will be a challenge. How do you teach students to reason? Word problems and applying math to real-world scenarios helps.

Learning patience
The plug-and-chug method of teaching math is fast. Teachers present a formula, students plug numbers into the formula then chug the answer. This is not the way the Common Core outlines math. Instead, it emphasizes patience. Students have to read a word problem and figure out the best way to solve it before they work with numbers. Meyers called this patient problem-solving, and he thinks all students should learn to work through math, even if it feels slow and difficult. This method also emphasizes real-world issues, allowing students to apply what they learned to life.

"The math serves the conversation; the conversation doesn't serve the math," Meyers said in his Ted Talk.