A Different Kind of Problem Solving

In the math classroom we focus a lot on problem solving and that means something fairly specific. We want students to develop quantitative reasoning, algebraic thinking, spatial/geometric intuition, etc. And, on a more fundamental level, the ability to assess a situation (the problem), come up with a plan, and execute said plan, making changes and modifications as needed.

Currently I am participating in a 10 day Wilderness First Responder course. We’ve been certified in CPR already and now we’re working on first aid scenarios. By the end of the course I’ll know how to reduce a dislocated shoulder–something I never thought I’d be able to do (not to mention something I hope never to have to do).

The thing that struck me during our work today was the amount of problem solving that goes on when someone is in a first aid situation. At every moment in a scenario I am forced to make decisions about what I think is wrong with the patient and what I am going to do next. Luckily, there is an established process for helping me to make these critical decisions. The process is similar to the one I outlined above: assess the situation, come up with a plan, execute the plan and modify as needed.

One major difference in the first aider world as compared to your typical math classroom is the level of complexity in the problems you are working on. In my WFR class (and in real life) no situation is clear-cut. Every situation is different and the data you collect can be conflicting. Something you decide to do in the beginning may not work and you have to try something else.

How often does any of this show up in the standard math classroom? How much does this show up in your classroom? How much should these types of problems occur?

Too often—far too often—math problems are set up with only the information you need to solve the problem plug into the formula. Then, once your students have successfully done this, voila!, the procedure works. No stumbling blocks, no need to pause for reassessment. They can bulldoze onward to the next problem…which looks cookie-cutter identical to the last problem, only with slightly different numbers. Is it any wonder that students believe that math has little to no relationship to the real world? Answer to my rhetorical question: Hell no!

Students are not stupid. Yes, they may lack skills and yes, they may struggle with mathematical concepts. But, the correct approach is NOT to dumb down the math and make it easier for them. Real life is not easy. It has not been simplified down to the bones. There is muscle and tendons and nerve endings and cartilage attached to those bones. Don’t butcher the math for your students. They can’t learn how to problem solve if you wrap every “problem” up in a pretty package. They have to get a little messy. They have to struggle with purpose. Making mistakes helps people learn.

I have made some sort of mistake in every medical scenario I’ve participated in during this class. Some I have caught and fixed. Every single mistake has helped me get better the next time. I have about 374x as much confidence in my ability to do a patient assessment now as I did three days ago. If I hadn’t dived in and tried my best and struggled, I wouldn’t have seen that growth happen.


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