Teachers: Stop assigning word problems. It's a problem.

My daughter was working on her math homework last night.

Side note: First graders should not have homework. The research is exceedingly clear and unequivocal in this regard. Homework is meaningless and possibly detrimental to students until at least middle school. Many elementary schools have already abandoned homework for this very reason. As a teacher, I assign homework because it is required, but if given the freedom to do what is right, I would not. Instead, I try to find ways to make my homework meaningful and fun whenever possible. 


Clara had completed several problems when she moaned, "Why does math have so many problems? I don't like problems."

And she was right.

Why do we refer to equations as problems?
Why do we teach students to solve word problems?

No one likes problems. Clara is right.

Imagine what might happen if I started handing books to kids and said, "Here. You'll love this problem. Get reading."

Or if I gave my students a map and said, "I have a problem for you today. Label all the countries of Europe on this map."

Or if I told students, "Today we begin our science fair projects. This will be an enormous, high stakes, three-month problem for you and possibly your parents, too, depending on their inability to detach themselves from your long term projects." 

These are not problems.

Mathematical equations are not problems.

  • Bed bugs are a problem. 
  • Drug addiction is a problem.
  • Pretending that your bigotry is based upon Scripture is a problem.
  • The great Pacific garbage patch is a problem.
  • New York Jets fandom is a problem.
  • Designer logos are a problem. 
  • Humble bragging is a problem.
  • My inability to hit the driver more than 175 yards is a problem.
  • Institutions like private schools that perpetuate the achievement economic are a problem. 
  • My daughter's refusal to put away her markers is a problem.

But the addition "problems" that my daughter was solving?

Not problems. Equations. 

Beginning in September, I will cease referring to anything in mathematics as a problem. 

Multiplication problems will become equations

Word problems involving trains traveling at different speeds in different directions or boxes filled with varying amounts of widgets will no longer be referred to as problems. They will become mathematical situations (unless I think of something better). 

No longer will my students think of math as a subject filled with problems. They have enough problems in their lives already. They don't need any more.

Will this make my students suddenly love math? Embrace it with enthusiasm and vigor? 

I don't think so. Some will still love math. Others will not. I'll still work like hell to get them all to enjoy solving equations and understanding how numbers work.  

But removing the word "problem" from my vernacular will make me feel better about talking about math, and perhaps over time, their opinions will shift ever so slightly.  

Either way, referring to mathematical equations and mathematical situations as problems is a problem.  

And It only took me 18 years of teaching for me to realize this.

The ad has good intentions, but it doesn’t depict reality, and that could be more damaging to girls than no ad at all.

This new Verizon-sponsored ad, which was made in conjunction with Makers to show how parents unintentionally steer their daughters away from science and math, is receiving a lot of praise for the way it doesn’t focus solely on female body and beauty issues, as well as its willingness to shine the light on the role that parents play in the problem. 

Amanda Marcotte of Slate calls it a “blast of refreshing cool air.”

I understand why critics like the ad so much, but here’s my problem with it:

Are there really parents in the world as sexist and stupid as the ones depicted in the commercial?

I’m not sure. If there are parents like this, they are hardly in the majority. 

There are four incidents depicted in the commercial during which the girl is supposedly steered away from science.

First, while hiking up a mountain and through a stream while wearing rubber boots, her mother says, “Sammy, don’t get your dress dirty.”

On a hike? Up a mountain? In a stream? Is there some fine dining establishment at the summit with a strict dress code? Is this rocky, mountain trail also the path to Sammy’s kindergarten graduation?

Next, a slightly older Sammy is standing in a tidal pool, holding a starfish. Dad says, “You don’t want to mess with that. Why don’t you put it down.”

A starfish? Not an angry crab. Not a potentially poisonous sea urchin. Perhaps the most defenseless creature on the entire planet: A starfish.

Next, Sammy is hanging spheres decorated as planets over her bed. Her mother pokes her head into her bedroom and says, “This project has gotten out of control.”

Perhaps it’s the use of glitter, which should be banned from the Earth, that has gotten her mother’s knickers in a bunch. I could understand this concern. I’d even be willing to support the mother’s discontent. But other than the possible overuse of glitter, what exactly has “gotten out of control?” Was Sammy’s mother thinking that her solar system would consist of just eight planets, but Sammy foolishly made thirteen?

The last example is the worst. Teenage Sammy is drilling a screw into a model rocket while her older brother looks on. Dad shouts, “Whoa. Be careful with that (drill). Why don’t you hand it to your brother.”

Not a table saw. Not a weaponized laser beam. Not a nail gun. A drill.

I’m not saying that girls can’t use table saws, weaponized laser beams, or nail guns, but as a parent, I can understand the concern for any teenager (or me) using these tools. But a drill is one step removed from an egg beater. It’s one of the most benign of all the power tools. What damage could Sammy possibly do with a drill?

I believe that parents play a role in a girl’s decisions to turn away from science and math. I just don’t believe that it’s typically (or ever) done in such ham-handed, overtly sexist ways as depicted in this commercial. 

Most important, unrealistic and exaggerated ads like this make it too easy for parents to watch them and think, “I’d never do anything like that,” while ignoring the more subtle signals that we send to our girls everyday.

When we show parents the worst examples of parenting, we offer them the opportunity to feel good about themselves and their own parenting, when in truth, they may be just as guilty of the same kinds of behavior that this ad depicts, only in more subtle and realistic forms.  


The math lesson on Christmas morning was not my idea. I swear.

This early morning hug and kiss were one two of the best moments of my Christmas morning.

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But the teacher in me also loved the moment ten minutes later, when my daughter refused to open any more presents, opting instead to practice her numbers on my computer.

I never thought I would be spending part of my Christmas morning explaining to my daughter how to form numbers above nineteen, but that’s exactly what we did while gifts remained unopened under the tree.

Don’t get me wrong. It was weird and slightly disconcerting, but it was also kind of amazing, too.

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