Nonsense can be useful

There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?

Is that even a math question? There’s certainly an argument that it’s not–but too many students would try to answer it like one. We teach students that math is basically just the act of smashing numbers together to get a new number out, so why wouldn’t students work up an answer to this?

In one of our professional development sessions last year, we talked about a study that showed students were more likely to come up with an answer to a question like this the older they got. That is, our math classes are teaching them to stop paying attention to reason and just try to spit out numbers.

That’s why I like the idea here that little kids be asked these sorts of questions. But I’d actually not limit this to second and third graders–I’d do it for middle schoolers, and probably even high schoolers, too.  I know a lot of you have built “problem solving” routines into your week somewhere. These sorts of “nonsense” problems would be a great thing to include to help students think more holistically about problem solving.  Make students articulate why these problems can’t be solve. Make them adapt the questions so they can be solved.

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