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** Use the code MATHSHIP to receive free shipping on the Mathematize It! books through the Corwin website. **

Welcome fellow Recovering Traditionalists to Episode 44.  Today we are looking at why Making Sense is First and Computation is Second.

I’ve always been bugged by the way textbooks use word problems, but I wasn’t ever able to verbalize what I didn’t like.  Then as I was reading the new book Mathematize It! Going Beyond Key Words to Make Sense of Word Problems: Grades 3-5 by Sara Delano Moore, Kimberly Morrow-Leong, and Linda M. Gojak, they put into words what I never was able to.

There is also a book for Grades K-2 for those of you who work with the younger grades.  

These books are full of information about the different word problem types, but also about the best way to implement the use of word problems in your classroom.  In the last chapter of the book, they describe 8 shifts in instruction that we need to do if we want to build students’ problem-solving skills. One of those is exactly the reason why I don’t like the way textbooks use word problems and so I’d like to share that with you today.

On page 176 they describe “Shift #2: Focus instruction on finding and explaining the meaning of a problem situation.  Figuring out how to calculate an answer comes second.”

“Treat Context and Computation Separately

Separating context from computation is a consistent theme throughout the book.  Chapter 2 focused on the power of concrete and visual representations to show the action in a problem situation.  We even saw the inefficient computation of adding up by sevens take center stage simply because the strategy matches a football game context!  Chapter 5 asked whether the commutative property of multiplication always is as practical in real-life problem solving as we’ve thought. Sure, the numbers always produce the same final product, but kids know that in an Equal Groups problem situation 2 x 30 is not the same as 30 x 2!  By separating and naming the factors in this type of problem situation, we acknowledge the critical importance of meaning and context and separate them from computation. Focusing on context has its own challenges, and they are not insignificant. It is our goal to raise your awareness of the many ways you can subtly but directly make instructional changes in order to hone students’ focus on what is happening in a problem, any contextual problem.  To be clear, computational skills are critically important, but that’s not what this book set out to address.”

What I’ve seen in textbooks is that the focus is first on calculating the answer and then maybe reflecting to see if that makes sense.  Typically, you have the students working on a bunch of addition problems and then there are one or two word problems and they are just used as a way for students to see it “in real life.” 

The kids get used to this pattern and know that they just solved a bunch of addition problems, so these story problems must also be addition and they just become number pluckers.  They pluck out the numbers and add, without first understanding the context of the situation in the word problem.

The focus when doing word problems should be on helping kids understand the situation.  This book goes into great detail about how to help your students do that. 

For those of you who are members of the Build Math Minds PD site, Ann Elise Record has done a lot of videos inside the member area about using Story Problems.  She’s even done a Mini Course about them.Also on the show notes page I’ll link to some free video trainings I have about teaching with word problems as well as these books from Sara, Kimberly, and Linda.

If you want more in-depth math professional development I’d love to have you come join me inside the Build Math Minds PD site.  Enrollment opens only once a year to the public, but a little birdy told me that we might be opening up enrollment soon for people who are on the Build Math Minds waitlist.  Since you give up your time each week to spend it with me here on the podcast I thought I’d give you the inside scoop. So head on over to to get details about the PD site and get yourself added to the waitlist.

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As you start off the school year, I want you to keep in mind what is really important as we're trying to teach mathematics to our students.