Why We Problem Solve

The Ted Radio Hour is a program on NPR where people are interviewed about their Ted Talks.  Today in Algebra 2, I played a 10 min. segment of an episode entitled Getting Organized (Click "Listen to the Story").  The host, Guy Raz, interviewed Morgan O'Neill who, with her sister at the age of 24, organized disaster relief for her home town when a tornado hit.  The story is engaging because the listener puts themselves in the shoes of Morgan and her sister.  Naturally we ask ourselves, What would I do if I was in this situation?  After we listened to the segment, I asked my students these questions:

-What skills were important in problem solving?

-What skills can we practice in math class to become better problems solvers?

Students had great ideas of what it takes to be a problem solver.  The first comment a student shared was that a problem solver has to have a good attitude.  I loved this comment!  Morgan and her sister didn't have all of the answers in organizing disaster relief efforts, but their positive attitude and hope kept others going.  Other skills students recognized as important for problem solving were efficiency, decision making and organization.  When asked which of these skills applied to math class, I was glad to hear that students agreed all of these skills were important.  One that I am hopeful to practice and encourage this year is decision making.  Instead of waiting for me (the teacher) to show the process for what to do, I want students to make a decision for how to begin.  Regardless of whether they get the right answer, I would like them to try.  We'll celebrate successes together and learn from mistakes together.

The discussion about organization was a great lead-in to solving systems of equations.  I gave my students this problem and immediately they understood the importance of being able to organize a math problem.  Most importantly, students made the connection that problem solving skills in math class could transfer later in life to bigger problems, such as natural disasters.