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Reverse word problems
Posted:
Dec 3, 2001 7:29 PM


As a math tutor, I've been using a little game recently I call "reverse word problems" to help students obtain some shred of meaning from the pagefulls of meaningless symbolic manipulation they are asked to do by their books. I often find that the books overemphasize method and underemphasize meaning. It's like teaching someone to use a drill but never explaining why on earth you would want a hole. I ask my students: "What is math about" and I always get the same answer: "numbers". To this I reply: "that's like saying literature is about letters! No, math like lit. is about life, people, the world, the universe, and everything! If you only look at the letters of a book and never read their meaning you haven't read the book!"
Anyway, my game is: given an equation in the book, give me a word problem that matches it. Bonus points for creativity and using elephants. At first they don't get it. I say, OK: "1+1: I found an elephant on my door step and started feeding it. Three months later my elephant unexpectedly had a baby (what do I know about elephant motherhood?) so how many elephants do I have to feed now?"
Ah, OK, they say. Then I give them 4+5 and they come up with something. I do a couple of those and then I give them 2 * 3 and then the x * 3 + 1, etc. I've been impressed with some (not all) student's ability to play this game and have found for some it created a really surprising sudden interest in what they had thought was totally esoteric. When one girl ("I hate math, I don't see the point") played it she came up with a problem concerning usedcars on 200*x + 100. I asked her where she got that idea and found out that her father sells cars. Hooray, I thought, now she get it!
I was interested to know if anyone else has used this technique and what your results have been.
Zack



