Saturday, 05 November 2011 17:45

Math Problem Solving Menus: An Introduction (Teaching Tip #48)

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The Teaching Tips will focus on the topic of Math Problem Solving Menus during this six week period.

Week 1: Math Problem Solving Menus: An Introduction
Week 2: Problem Solving Solution Sheet
Week 3: Sample Problem Solving Menu
Week 4: List of Problem Solving Strategies
Week 5: Scoring Rubric
Week 6: Checking System (The Supermarket Analogy)


Math Problem Solving Menus: An Introduction

Whenever my students finish their daily math activity early, they proceed directly to their Math Problem Solving Menus and work on them until the end of the period. Since I discovered this idea several years ago, it has been one of the most effective parts of our overall math curriculum. Each menu is a sheet with four open-ended story problems that call on students to employ a wide variety of strategies. I found some of these menu problems in various resources. Others I adapted or created from scratch.

In my third grade classroom there are nine menus in the set, and the students strive to complete as many of the nine as possible before the end of the year. The menus begin with straightforward, multi-step problems involving addition and subtraction. From there, the menus increase in difficulty and complexity. Many of the problems connect to and extend concepts we are learning in class, while others feature concepts and require strategies that go beyond our state’s content standards.

Using Math Problem Solving Menus helps me accomplish four primary objectives. First, the menus keep my students productively engaged and occupied. Many times, kids can lose focus at the end of a math period because they know they have completed the important work and think that anything they do after that is less important. That doesn’t happen with the menus.

Second, many of the menu problems offer valuable reinforcement, extra practice, and meaningful review for important content that we learned earlier in the year. Plus, because each menu problem features an engaging story or situation, the kids are applying their skills and using them in context.

Third, the menus are differentiated.  Because high-achieving math students tend to finish daily math work faster than their classmates, they will spend more time working on their menus and progress to the more difficult ones sooner. Kids who struggle with core concepts usually spend less time on their menus, and that is OK because these students need more time to master the basics. So, in a typical math period, everyone is working at an appropriate level of challenge for the entire time. (Note: students who aren’t spending much class time on their menus are welcome to take them home so that they don’t lose out on this valuable experience, and many students have done so over the past few years.)

Finally, because each menu is part of the larger set of nine, there is a year-long cohesiveness to this activity. I have mentioned before how I once heard someone say that school should be more like a video game. In video games kids are always engaged because they are always trying to move to a higher level. The step-by-step nature of video games ensures that kids are optimally challenged and never bored. Progressing through the nine menus offers children this same experience in school. In addition, it promotes goal-setting and an achievement orientation. Trying to complete all nine menus before the end of the year becomes a meaningful, shared classroom goal, and motivation to achieve it is high.