The “Problem Solving” Problem

Two trains leave the station headed in opposite directions. One train travels 10 miles per hour faster than the other. In 6 hours they are 425 miles apart. Find the rate of each train.

We’ve all heard it before… it’s the nightmare every adult has about their algebra class in High School…why do word problems have such a bad reputation!?   They are actually the avenue by which algebra (and most of math) becomes relevant. They can only become relevant if they ARE relevant. Is the “train problem” relevant to us? What connection can a student possibly make to this?

In my 20 years of teaching High School Math, word problems have always been challenging for my students. Consecutive integer problems, age problems,  distance/ rate problems, simple interest, etc…Word problems fitting into neat little categories.  Is this really the way students learn how to think critically? Are these the problems we WANT them to solve?  I think they actually learn to fear and dread word problems when they are uninterested and find no connection with it.  This year, I am using a new text (Pearson’s Algebra 1) and it, thankfully, takes a different approach to problem solving. It does not break down each word problem by “type”, as the “traditional algebra textbook” does.  While no textbook is perfect,  I am finding that my new text is a breath of fresh air. Each algebraic concept is introduced with a real “problem” to solve, and each section’s skill is used to solve that (and many other)  problems. These problems  don’t fit into a category, and don’t have a chart to fill in or a formulaic method to solve.  This is still hard work for my students. (And, really, how many 14 year olds love to work that hard?). But,  the problems are interesting (comparing vacation excursions, calculating tickets to concerts, figuring out how many songs and videos an iPhone can hold). And the problem solving process has not been equated with meaningless, rote work.

Over the course of the past week, however, I have felt that my class needed a little boost to keep the problem solving momentum going.  I searched the web, tweeted to my #mathchat friends and visited some of the math educator blogs I love… nothing was really jumping out at me. After thinking about about it some more, I decided that I should focus on something that all 9th graders care very deeply about… their cell phone.

So, I developed the  “Cell Phone” project:

You and your partner are charged with figuring out the best cell phone plan out there! You have 5 minutes  to make the sales pitch to the class. You must determine 3 “must have” features your plan should include. You will research the available options and choose 2 to compare.You will present the monthly cost for each plan and the reasons you and your partner chose that particular cell phone plan.

Here is a link to the sample “worksheet”.


Task #1) Interview your parents to find out about the cell phone provider/plan your family uses. What were the factors that your parents used to make their decision? Include as much detail as possible.

Task #2) Determine the 3 “must have” features your plan should include. Why have you chosen these features?

Task #3) Determine which cell phone plans you will compare. What are the factors that you considered in choosing these plans?

Task #4) Research the cost of the two plans for a month. Use at least three different web sources.

Task #5)  Create a 4 slide googledoc presentation to convince the class that you have chosen the best cell phone plan to recommend.

Here is the rubric.

I introduced the project using this website  as a starting point  for discussion. We talked about different features and came up with a list of relevant factors that groups might consider– coverage, voice minutes, texting, data, international calls (a few students have family out of the country).  We also discussed ways to research the information. I can’t wait to see how the project evolves! My students seemed excited to get started.

So– here it is:

My professional goal for the year-    change the perception of the “dreaded” word problem in my class!



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