Puzzling First Grader Math Problem Breaks the Internet
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:
My friend just sent me this pic of his 1st grader’s math workbook and neither he nor I have even the tiniest clue what the kid is supposed to do here pic.twitter.com/Xz2wP6P9j1— Helen R. (@hels) October 6, 2020
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.
College math instructor here. My thought: make sure that both baskets have the same number of fruit. You could do this by adding 3 oranges and 2 bananas to the right, but you could also add FOUR oranges and 2 bananas, and then an extra orange to the left!— Bill Shillito (@solidangles) October 6, 2020
Not many could agree on the answer, or even how to approach the question.
subtract the fruit to show how you get from a full basket to an empty basket, the point is to reinforce the relationship between abstract math and the physical world— ben (@BenMahtin) October 6, 2020
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:
I have a PhD in pure math. Last week I spent 20 minutes with my fourth grader to try to understand what exactly her online exercise instructions were.— Ofer Ron (@oferron) October 6, 2020
These things lack both pedagogical value and math insights, and seem to be written by people who have never actually taught kids.
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.