Eureka! We’ve Had a Breakthrough

Thursday we had a lot of errands to run, so we zoomed through school and when it was time to leave, the older boys weren’t finished with their math assignment. Naturally we took the show on the road. As I was driving along, I heard them discussing one of the word problems, and it quickly became apparent to me that The Mercenary was on the wrong track.

I had him read the problem aloud. Here’s what he read:

The decimal number three and seventy-eight hundredths is how much more than two and twelve hundredths?

The Mercenary’s solution was to add the two numbers in the problem together and move on. He’s been doing that a lot lately, and it’s resulted in a lot of errors in his work.

Recently we talked about how he understand the process of making calculations, but it’s the word problems and figuring out which calculations to do that’s really kicking him in the tookus.

So, back to yesterday and the math problem. The following conversation took place:

Me: Okay, what is the problem asking for?

Mercenary: I don’t know.

Me: Allllright. Reread me the problem.

Mercenary: (reads problem)

Me: Okay, so. The problem says “how much more than”. How do we figure out how much more than something is?

Mercenary: Ummmmmmmm……

Me: Well, we have to figure out how much more than. Do we add, subtract, multiply, or divide?

Mercenary: Ummmmmmm…….

Me: Okay. Well, we have to figure out “how much more than”. Does that sound like we’d add or multiply the numbers?

Mercenary: No.

Me: Alright. Does it sound like we might subtract or divide the numbers?

Mercenary: Yes, that sounds right.

Me: Yes. You’re right. Now, we want to find the difference between the two numbers. Does that sound like a subtraction problem, or a division problem?

Mercenary: Subtraction! Difference means subtraction!!

Me: Yes!! That’s right. Now when you subtract, is the big number going to go on top or on the bottom?

Mercenary: The big number goes on top.

Me: Yes! You got it!

Now, you may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? Conversations like that go on every day in math situations all over the planet.” Ah haaaaa. But they’ve NOT happened at MY house before.

Okay well… part of them has happened. Countless times. But it hasn’t happened that he’s been willing to play along with me and go through the mental process to come to the answer.

One thing I’ve tried to model for him over and over is that there are steps you can follow to find an answer. The Mercenary would much rather just wait for the answer to come to him out of thin air. He’s a pretty smart kid, and quite often that’s exactly how it happens.

Then there’s the rest of the time when that doesn’t happen. The answer doesn’t just walk up and smack him in the face, so he wings it and gets it wrong. Plodding through any kind of systematic plan to get the answer is just sooooo what he’s not into. You should have seen me try to teach him different ways to solve a wordsearch. Sheesh. That was painful. Even when I framed the strategies as ‘short cuts’. He’s the king of the short cut. Except for when his mother is suggesting it.

I’m taking this new development as a sign that trust and respect are increasing between us, and I have high hopes for continued collaboration on problem-solving in the future.

My happy dance lasted all the way to the store.

Earnest Parenting: help for parents who want their children to be more systematic.

Image courtesy of Tiago Daniel, via Creative Commons License, some rights reserved.

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