Math Word Problems (Or Forcing a Square Peg in a Round Hole)


My nine year-old has more homework than usual this week. That’s OK. Since I homeschooled my oldest sons, I know all too well how to teach a third grader, but every once in a while the explanation seems to elude me.  His weakest (and therefore most detested) subject is math, so I wasn’t surprised that he balked when we began the two pages of word problems. The conversation that ensued while we worked through the problems was actually quite comical.

Me (reading from the assignment): Write and solve a word problem in which you must find an unknown partner.

Aidan (a little confused): You mean like I have to do in gym?

Me (containing my smile): No, Honey. This is different. The teacher is asking you to create a word problem similar to the nine that we just worked through. Finding an unknown partner means you’re only given a portion of the information and you need to use math to find out the portion that you weren’t given.

Aidan: Does it need to be a subtraction problem?

[He sees no useful reason he should ever have to do subtraction, especially if it involves borrowing from the *neighbor*.  Wait until he opens his first checking account!]

Me: Let’s assume the answer is YES since the previous nine problems all involved subtraction.

Aidan (enthusiastically):  I know! There were 15 kids in costumes. Six kids wore ghost costumes.

Me (excitedly thinking he’d caught on quickly): Good, Aidan! I’ll write that part down for you. Now you need to end the word problem by asking a question. What would your question be?

Aidan (very confidently): The question part is really easy, Mom!  How many kids wore werewolf costumes?

Me (mental face palm): Ummm.  No. How could I answer that, Aidan, since there are still nine kids that I don’t know about?

Aidan: Easy. I could tell you.

Me (growing more confused than HIM!): Tell me what, Aidan?

Aidan: I could tell you that eight of the kids wore werewolf costumes!

Me: But eight werewolves plus six ghosts only equals 14 kids. I thought there were 15 kids in costumes.

Aidan (more than ready to make his word problem work):  OK. So let’s say that the other kid dressed as Darth Maul.

[sigh]

It’s fun to hear how Aidan processes things. He’s not a neuro-typical third grader since he navigates life with high-functioning Autism, but he is very academically adept. That said, our math lesson gave me reason to pause tonight to explain to him that somewhere in our conversation, he went off-course. It wasn’t about werewolves at all when we began the word problem, but once he introduced werewolves into the picture, he was focused on  making it work.

How often do we find ourselves doing the very same thing, whether it be with a school assignment, a work situation, or a life circumstance? After using a half page of paper on one algebra problem, it becomes obvious that the direction in which we are headed is not right. But who wants to rework that entire problem? It seems more time-efficient to chalk it up to a great, albeit failed, attempt and be thankful it was only worth five points while moving on to the following problem. At work, we find that the implementation of  a new product did not provide the company with the long-term benefits we anticipated. Rather than giving voice to this fact, we force the new product to fit into the business while we listen to our peers grumble under their breath. In life we find ourselves accumulating debt. As the interest becomes higher than the principle, we begin to realize that our credit card debt is too high, but it’s so much easier to open a new credit card and start with a zero balance than to reign in our spending habits and pay off the balance on the first card.

As we worked through Aidan’s math word problem that evening, we had to return to the base problem to ascertain how to best address it. Avoiding the problem, or simply adding new factors, was not working – no matter how hard he tried forcing that square peg into the round hole!

What are the square pegs in your life? Are you working through issues where you’ve introduced too many factors? Or are you simply ignoring that the issue exists at all? Unfortunately, the issues that are not dealt with remain, needing correction and seeking closure. Left open and uncorrected, they haunt us unceasingly.  Face the issues in your life; correct them; bring closure. It will feel fa-BOO-lous!

Philippians 3:13-15
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.

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2 responses to “Math Word Problems (Or Forcing a Square Peg in a Round Hole)

  1. Love it and the life lessons we can gleam from our kids and daily life!

    • I so heartily agree! While I didn’t point it out in this blog, I also noticed how easily he pulled ME off track! How often do we allow others to do that in our lives? I think it’s more often than we’d like to admit!! =)

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