Puzzling First Grader Math Problem Breaks the Internet

A viral math question has the internet talking about the language our children use to learn.
Chris Young

Last week, The New Yorker's Helen Rosner shared a first grader's school math question which subsequently went viral for the usual reason — no one could agree exactly how to solve it.

As Popular Mechanics explains, the confusion might actually be the result of a new pedagogical method, involving compressed instructions, that has children draw out their ideas to explore how they are thinking.


The viral math question

Helen Rosner posted the math question last week:

Shortly after, Rosner wrote that "I am but a lowly humanities person so bafflement is understandable maybe, but my friend went to MIT."

Various attempts and answers

Several people attempted to answer.

Not many could agree on the answer, or even how to approach the question.

Ben here seemed like he was on the right track.

A simple question taken out of context

As Caroline Delbert from Popular Mechanics points out, the problem is likely taken out of context outside of a classroom setting.

"The shared problem follows a now-common formula with updated math pedagogies of different kinds," Delbert writes. "A parent, who hasn’t read or just isn’t given the right materials to understand the pedagogy, takes a clip out of context and laughs at how it seems to be nonsense. In this case, the homework is using language students likely learned in class."

The "math drawing" from the question is likely simply one numerical value represented as a drawing on a page.

The homework instructions would likely have been emphasized in class, and the "math drawings" would have made it easier for the students to share their answers in class.

Communication about mathematical thinking

As Delbert points out, the 2005 book How Students Learn: Mathematics in the Classroom, explains that this highly visual approach helps students to explore and contrast their methods of thinking.

"Such communication about mathematical thinking can help everyone in the classroom understand a given concept or method because it elucidates contrasting approaches, some of which are wrong — but often for interesting reasons," the authors write in How Students Learn.

Not everyone agrees of course. As Tweeter Ofer Ron put it in his reply to Rosner's post: 

What do you think? Do you agree with Delbert, who says she is now team "math drawings"? Or do you think it's high time these math homework books stick to the basics and focus on clarity of expression when it comes to phrasing a question? Be sure to give us your thoughts, and your answer to the math problem in the comments.

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