Monday, September 21, 2009

Word Problems- A Bit of History

Now that the kids are back in school, The Cat and the Fiddle would like to dish out some thoughts about word problems.

When doing research for a historical project some time ago I stumbled across this one, dating from 1581:

“A drunkard drinketh a barrel of beer in the space of 14 days, and when his wife drinks with him then they drink it out within ten days. In what space will his wife drink that barrel alone?”

(from Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London by Liza Picard)

Hopefully the scholars were sober whilst they tried to figure it out. Eager to know more math history, I read Susan Gerofsky’s fascinating A Man Left Albuquerque Heading East: Word Problems as Genre in Mathematics and learned that word problems are as old as the earliest human records (they show up on 4000 year old Babylonian cuneiform tablets) and have been employed continuously ever since. Some of the old chestnuts are even included, with alterations, in textbooks today. An Italian Renaissance math textbook contains an early version of the “two trains crossing” problem, using couriers dispatched from both the Holy Father in Rome and a certain Signora of Venice.

In her book Gerofsky analyzes and critiques word problems and makes recommendations for how to improve them. Hallelujah! Gary Larson spoke for most of us with his legendary cartoon that depicts a library in hell stocked with books like "Story Problems Galore.” Why did we dread them when we were in school? For their often preposterous scenarios. For their two dimensional characters. Who really cared about the number of fabric squares Jane needed for her quilt, or the length of the shadows cast by those flagpoles? Nobody did. Everyone knew word problems were cheap instructional set-ups, math not even thinly disguised as story.

Why is this my business? Because I’ve worked, as a substitute teacher, with hundreds of students in elementary classrooms. I’ve felt their pain. And I say, along with Gerofsky, that word problems don’t have to be lifeless. We can do better. Together, we can build exciting story problems for tomorrow’s children. Or at least we can have fun with them on this blog.

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats.
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks and wives,
how many were there going to St. Ives?

Elsewhere, in Tyrannosaurus related news: "Fossil Identified as mini-T-rex" What a story! Anastasia Suen featured Tyrannosaurus Math as a Picture Book of the Day, and it's now part of the 2010 California Collection by California Readers. Roar!

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