Creating Math Moments: How we can transform typical textbook problems into moments that matter.

In an ongoing effort to demonstrate that we can apply the 3 part framework of Spark Curiosity, Fuel Sense Making, Igniting Teacher Moves to any lesson in math class we’ll tackle the common problem of finding the equation of a line between two points. Like this basic problem:

Sometimes textbooks may even jazz it up a bit to give it some context like this one.

Let’s re make this lesson to fall under our 3-part framework.

Even though this is a grade 9 and 10 expectation here in Ontario you’ll find that this problem is quite accessible for many grades.

In particular you could use it to uncover:

  • Find the slope (rate of change) of a line between two points;
  • Find the equation (rate of change) of a line between two points;
  • Model real-life relationships involving constant rates;
  • Model linear relationships using tables of values, graphs, and equations.

Spark Curiosity

We’ve been arguing that instead of finding a context that will make students interested we should follow the curiosity path which we’ve described in the first two lessons in our 4 part video series instead.

Let’s consider the big idea here: We want students to build an algebraic representation of a linear relation using only two values.

To withhold information and build anticipation we will strip all the numbers and questions and ease into the lesson. To help create the classroom culture that values student voice, student thinking, and growth we’ll ask students to fill in the two blanks here:

Setting the floor low will help our students feel attached to the math problem that is coming. The more attached and invested they will feel the more internal motivation they will have to pursue the problem to the end.

In behavioural economics there is a theory known as The Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Or also known as Escalation of commitment.

From Wikipedia,

Escalation of commitment is a human behavior pattern in which an individual or group facing increasingly negative outcomes from some decision, action, or investment nevertheless continues the same behavior rather than alter course. The actor maintains behaviors that are irrational, but align with previous decisions and actions. 

You see, we humans are inclined to avoid loss. We will continue with a project or line of thinking if we feel that if we abandoned it we would incur loss. Even if that abandonment was better for us.

For example, my first car, a 1993 Ford Escort – you know, this is the car that had the automatic seatbelts. When you sit down and turn the car on the seat belt came up and automatically moved over your shoulder. One winter the heater in the car stopped working and I paid over $1000 to have it fixed. Then not long after something else broke on the car and instead of saying enough with this car I said, “Well, I just paid $1000 to fix it if I don’t fix it now then it’s like my $1000 was wasted.” This bias I just exhibited is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. I wanted to throw bad money after good. The $1000 I previously spent was a sunk cost and there’s no way I could get that back so the $1000 shouldn’t play a roll in my new decision to fix the car. I should decide to fix the car or not fix the car without letting that $1000 affect this decision.

The sunk cost fallacy makes us feel that if we invest time, money, resources into a project or decision that we should keep going with that project or decision so we avoid loss. The escalation of our commitment keeps us in the game.

In math education we can use our students own tendencies of avoiding loss for their own good. By setting a low floor in activities, we are easing our students into those activities and lessons so that it will be harder for them to just quit and give up once they are deeply invested in the activity . They won’t want to feel that what they’ve done so far in the activity was a waste of time and resources. They’ve sunk a cost into the activity and will continue with it to avoid loss. You can read another application in education of the Sunk Cost Fallacy from Robert Kaplinsky.

Your students will fill in various items and values for this problem. In my class this was a fun moment as we shared out what they wanted to buy and for how much.

Fuel Sense Making by Revealing Information

So now we’ll move down the Curiosity Path and narrow the focus to give a little more information.

How much would 12 shirts cost?

Students can make quick predictions before revealing the information slowly…

We don’t want to waste all the work we’ve done on escalating our students commitment so we’ll move down the curiosity path a little bit more and avoid the rushing to the algorithm. Students will use the given information and their prior knowledge to build a strategy to solving this problem.

Fuelling Sense Making by Anticipating

We are strong believers and practitioners in the PDF or the book 5 Practices For Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions. So in preparation for this lesson we used our Anticipation, Selection, and Sequencing template to brainstorm possible solutions and strategies our students will try.

You can grab a blank copy of this template here.

To maximize your mathematical discussions you may want to sequence the strategies from most common to least common.

For example;

You can expect many students to try to find a unit rate to solve this problem. This is quite natural! It makes sense to find the price per shirt. However, not all situations are directly proportional. We can ask our students: How do we know this is a direct proportional relationship?

When students find the unit rate for 12 shirts at $122 and then again for 24 shirts at $209 they will see that it doesn’t cost the same per shirt! WHAT!?

Something else is going on here. You may want to give a small hint here asking, “hmmm, If 12 shirts cost $122 does 24 shirts – which is double the amount of shirts cost $122 x 2? How much more does 24 shirts cost? What would 36 shirts cost?

Students who noticed this right away may draw a double number line to show the changing prices and eventually determine the cost per shirt.

Students who have found the cost per shirt will still notice that simply multiplying the cost per shirt by the number of shirts STILL doesn’t get the cost — there is some other value that consistently needs to be added – The initial value or fixed cost.

Have a discussion at what this fixed cost could be — shipping charges? Overhead costs? Printing rental fee? ect. With this new calculation rule students can move on to verify that it does indeed work with 200 shirts, and then finally find the cost of 1100 shirts. You may even want to steer your discussion towards finding an algebraic representation of this relation.

Some students may represent this pattern as a table instead of a double number line. Depending on your grade level you may also want to use the word slope to represent the cost per shirt. If you see this solution from your student you’ll want to push for an algebraic representation

You may see some students turning toward Desmos and graphing the points to find an algebraic representation. We definitely anticipated this having taught this lesson in a grade 10 applied class.

The order you present these strategies/solutions will depend on your lesson goal. If you are trying to achieve the goal from the top of this post (Finding an equation of line between two points) then you most likely will want to end with finding the algebraic representation and then showing how you can use Desmos to verify that representation.

Finally we can show students that if the relation is linear, we really only need two points.

We feel that if we can take this particular learning goal and modify the delivery and teacher moves to create a math moment that matters we can do this with any textbook problem. What lesson should we make over next?

If you haven’t checked out our 4-part video series yet, get over there now:


Download the 3-page printable guide that will give you 3 actionable tips to build resilient problem solvers in your math classroom. 

We also have a course inside our Math Educator PD Academy all about how to transform textbook problems into curiosity machines. Best of all, you can join the Academy free for 30 days and cancel anytime.

That should be enough time for you to dive in and learn a ton from that course.

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30 thoughts on “Creating Math Moments: How we can transform typical textbook problems into moments that matter.

  1. I ended up turning my problem based lessons into a textbook! 🙂 Now I actually use the textbook. Specially for students that were absent during the activity, or to review for the test.

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