Managing student engagement and behaviors at the end of the school year can be a challenge for even our most experienced teachers. However, fourteen years of teaching has taught me that engagement is the key! The more engaged students are in tasks that are both developmentally appropriate and challenging, the less off-task behavior they will display.
One way to increase the level of engagement in your classroom is through problem solving challenges-- specifically, non-routine problems. These are my favorite type of problems to use in the classroom; however, they do require more time to allow the students to understand, analyze, and solve. Non-routine problems are ones that cannot be solved by simply adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing to find the answer. They require students to develop and execute a plan of action and can often have more than one solution.
My favorite way to use them is to find a really good one—one that will take some time to complete and where the solution is not easily determined. I divide students into small groups of 2 – 3 (more than three students in a group creates opportunities for disengagement). I give each group a problem solving challenge, a tub of markers, and a piece of large paper, like construction paper or an old textbook cover (Anyone still have those lying around? The blank backsides are perfect for creating posters!) Once students have their materials, they read the problem, determine a solution strategy, and create a poster.
After all of the groups have completed the task, I have each group display their poster and do a gallery walk to review how other groups solved the problem. Once the students have viewed the posters, we come back together as a whole group and have a math talk to discuss the problem. Here are some of the ideas we discuss during this math talk time:
- How can you decide if an answer is reasonable or not? What would be an example of an answer that is too high? Too low?
- What’s the most effective strategy? Why?
- What’s the most efficient strategy? Why?
- What if a group thought about it this way ________________________ (provide an erroneous solution strategy)? How could you help them get on the right path?
With a little planning and creativity, the craziest weeks of the year can become the most engaging for your students. In my own classroom, I planned for a different problem solving or critical thinking challenge for each day of the week and my students spent the majority of their math time exploring the tasks, devising a plan to solve them, and then finding the solution.
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