Each Sunday night I have been hosting #probchat, a chat about teaching with non-routine problems. This weekly twitter conversation has been a great learning experience for me, even on night’s like tonight when there isn’t always a good turn out (thanks a lot, #superbloodmoon). Since the chat is empty tonight, let’s take a minute to take some time to reflect on where it’s been, and where it’s going.

#Probchat in a nutshell

In the spring last year I searched of a twitter chat where I would be a regular. At this time I wanted to learn how to teach with “non-routine problems,” a term that was murkily defined on my school’s teacher-created rubric, but seems to fit a whole class of problems that one could lead a rich class discussion around. The kind of teaching I wanted to do was like the kind I had seen from Deborah Ball, or Magdalene Lampert, or in Lesson Study exemplars from Japan. The chat I hoped for didn’t exist, but it seemed like it should, so I started hosting it. There was never a point at which I had any qualification other than my comfort with putting up twitter chat that may not have anyone show up.

#probchat criteria

As I began running #probchat, I tried to think about 3 things each week for the problem:

  1. It has to be a non-routine problem. – Not a riddle which happens to involve numbers. Not a routine problem where student thinking is funneled towards taking algorithmic steps to a solution. And it should lead to math concepts, but not be overly thick with mathematical jargon.
  2. It should be applicable for many levels. – Since twitter chats can have teachers from K-12, they will need problems that can elicit all of their thinking. This means problems are usually billed as being between 4th and 10th grade, and it has been great having a wide range of teachers.
  3. It should come from a new, free resource online. – Without pressure to find new problems I feared it would become #nrichchat. Highlighting new places may popularize non-routine problems.

Difficulties of finding problems

Each week of #probchat means looking at a lot of problems that aren’t a good fit. This week I spent a solid hour and a half looking for a new resource with a problem that would match my criteria (and it wasn’t even that good). In looking through the various problem banks and worksheets and guides online, I see a number of the same ones over-and-over, as though there a finite number of math problems that these local math competitions and school districts are allowed to publish.

Most of the problems that get passed over aren’t bad, they are just too dependent on previous mathematical content. This might be the case with Phillips-Exeter problems. The problem-based curriculum is great but each problem contains too specific information for lower grade students to get started.

Other problems that get passed over are the ones that just have a “trick” to it, and thus there is only one solution strategy to talk about. Lame! This could be all of the problems over at the name-thieving global math challenge.

The one big lesson I learned in looking for new problems is that they probably aren’t out there hiding, at least not for free. By now I’ve sorted through enough free resources to learn that most of the things that are out there are either from the big obvious sources, teachers, or from books and other paid resources which I try to avoid for fear of copyright.

Going Forward

Finding time to promote the chat ahead of time and having a better search has been my biggest problem. I still need a solution for juggling a new job, a new baby, and a whole bunch of other responsibilities. Hopefully, there is some light at the end of October.

I’m going to keep trying to find new problems with #probchat each week, but I guess it will probably have to stop coming from online problem banks, and start coming from blogs and tweets of math teachers out there, which would probably be the best place for me to keep learning!