More Than One Way to Pick Apples (and Solve Math Problems)

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The other day I was picking apples with my children in our backyard. We are very privileged to have four apple trees that produce a lot of delicious fruit. Unfortunately it was taking an awfully long time to pick all of them.

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As the minutes turned into hours I couldn’t help but think that there must be a better way to pick these apples! I will often tell my students that there is more than one way to solve a problem, so I thought of my problem and current strategy:

Problem: It takes too long to pick apples with several distracted children.
Strategy: Pick apples one-by-one and place them in a basket. (no good)

After brainstorming I came up with a New Strategy: Shake the tree like crazy to knock the apples down, and then use a snow shovel to scoop them into the baskets.

It worked! Some apples were bruised, but I could live with that…

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It is important for students (and all of us) to realize that there is often more than one way to solve a problem. Sir David Attenborough, an accomplished naturalist once said, “There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive.”

Attenborough

Although there may not be four million, there are many math strategies to solve a variety of math problems. I can come up with three main reasons why there are multiple strategies to solve math problems:

1) The strategies work.
2) Some strategies can help people better understand the context of a math problem and its solution.
3) Different strategies work better for different people.

Once in awhile a math problem-solving strategy will find its way to social media because someone found it to be disagreeable and needs to share their discouragement. I have no problem with someone voicing their opinion. But the fact is some strategies do work for others more than they work for you, and vice versa. And sometimes strategies can help assist people with understanding why something occurs – for instance, why you put a one in front of a number after you have “borrowed” from the number beside it.

Confused Man in Front of Math Formula Written on a Chalkboard

A discouragement of mine as a professional educator is that not all math word problems are created equal. What I mean is that not are all worded in the most understandable way for youth (or adults for that matter). But please trust that I will do what I can to either reword a problem for your child in a way that makes sense for him or her, or I will provide an entirely different word problem that is appropriate for your child (if they face a word problem of the most disagreeable nature). After all, as stated by inventor and engineer Charles Kettering, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.”

And well-stated problems often have a variety of effective strategies that can assist with finding the correct solution.

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