Finding the Way…

When I was younger, I LOVED playing Super Mario Brothers. I vividly remember coming home in the afternoons from school, eating my snack and playing this video game. This game was a favorite! There was something about it.

As soon as I popped the game in, this was the first screen I saw. Where it says "empty", it would soon display coin amounts.

As soon as I popped the game in, this was the first screen I saw. 

When I first  turned it on, I saw a screen similar to this. Usually, I completely ignored this screen. What information did it really tell me anyway? I already knew the title, and frankly, I couldn’t have cared less about when it was copyrighted.

As soon as I hit the “start” button and selected my level, I was dropped into something like this…

Where are the directions???

Where are the directions???

Time started ticking… and I had to find my way! Oh, and did I find my way? Yes, there were many times that Mario would loose his life. I couldn’t end the game there.  I would hit start again! With the only goal of getting further through the game than I did the previous time. I couldn’t help myself. After I would beat one level, I wanted to even go back, replay it just to beat my time. I had persevered through the level, made sense of what I had to do, and then I WANTED to become more efficient.  No one handed me instructions to the game or taught me strategies on how to get through each level successfully. Nobody had to! I wanted to figure it out. The crazy thing…If you were to put this game in front of me now, I would remember how to navigate through and still beat the levels. Beautiful thing, right?

Student-invented strategies are just as beautiful! I could not tell you how many times I have been in the middle of a lesson with the teacher looking at me like I was crazy for putting the students in problem solving situations. (Imagine hitting the “start” button, and students falling into the problem just like Mario did in the levels above.)

I can hear some responses now…

“My students don’t KNOW enough strategies to help them solve this problem.”

“I haven’t taught them ways to do these problems yet.”

“We haven’t learned this yet.”

While the teacher might be looking at me like I am crazy, the students are looking at me with their wheels turning. I can see in their eyes, they are thinking. Several minutes pass. Some students begin working, and others ask questions. My answers… the least helpful question I can think of. Just enough to keep them invested.

After probing students’ thought processes and answering more questions with questions, I find that students arrive at an answer to the problem. They solved the problem! They beat the level! And boy, oh boy, do they want to tell you all about how they beat the level! They want to share their strategy with anybody listening on how they solved the problem. Their focus isn’t on the answer, but what they did to solve the problem – their strategy.

Food for thought: Put students in purposeful problem solving situations, and let them find their way. Will it take them more than one attempt? Definitely! Will it take some support? Definitely! (I tried to get extra lives ALL the time when I played Mario Bros.) Will they find their way? Definitely! Will they retain what they learned? I bet you! =)

About Lisa Anglea

Wife. K-5 Math Coach. Lifelong Learner
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