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“Interesting,” not “complicated” (Math Mantras, part 2)

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about re-framing. Along the lines of “eraser time,” and “when in doubt, write it out,” another way I’ve found helps my students to approach a more complex problem with courage and even a sense of playfulness is saying the simple phrase, “This looks… interesting,” with a little friendly smile.

Why does this work? So many times when kids hit a problem that looks weird to them, they just stop and give up, thinking, I don’t recognize this, I don’t know how to do this, no one has taught me this yet! I will just wait, or close my book and go do something else, or hope this problem disappears! But frequently, those problems are just one little step, one small stretch, beyond what they have just done.

“This looks…interesting” opens up a space where it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to do–a place where you can explore. A zone where you can spread out and think about what might work or what you could try. It neutralizes the subconscious tendency to freak out. It’s like you’re an archeologist discovering a beautiful, mysterious artifact whose purpose is unknown. Instead of thinking, “I don’t know what to do with this crazy thing!” you can welcome the process of puzzling out how it might work.

I’ve found that if I do this enough, it’s one of those phrases that my students repeat back to me, unprompted. If we’re talking about the complicated problems as though they are “interesting” instead (even if inside, they might be saying, “this looks scary/impossible”), eventually they start doing this on their own.

And it’s not just a trick–it’s also true. Part of the process of mastery is that what was once impossible becomes familiar. And what is familiar is no longer challenging. And eventually, what is familiar becomes downright boring.

So to stay in the magic space between frustration and boredom, where the problem is perfectly matched to our abilities to stretch us just one step beyond what we already have done, we need to kick it up a notch so we don’t get bored. So we can grow. And so we can enjoy.

Related posts:
It’s eraser time! (And other math mantras)
On Optimal Challenge
How to help kids be OK with things being hard

Tagged In: Topics: optimal challenge, tips

One Comment on ““Interesting,” not “complicated” (Math Mantras, part 2)”

  • Peter Price on January 29th 8:57 pm

    Hey, Rebecca, I love this post.
    You have hit on a really cool, creative way to get your students to engage with mathematical problem solving. The research confirms that many weak math students believe that if they can’t solve a problem within a few seconds, they will never get it, and consequently they give up. I love the way you are having a conversation with your students about what it takes to do real math – which sometimes involves pursuing leads and trying ideas, even though some of them will lead to dead ends.
    All teachers of math should pay attention to this – great stuff!

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