top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Sold a story problem: Start simple, build mastery, says Jump Math founder

Jamal and Maria don't have any apples. Aidan has three Fujis from the supermarket and Olivia has five Honeycrisps from Trader Joe's. After our class discussion on "food deserts," draw a picture illustrating inequity.

Addition was simpler in my day. We learned 3 + 5 = 8. Our story problems often involved fruit, but not really. It was all about the 3 + 5 = 8. It worked for oranges, cookies, you name it. Dividing pizzas was the closest we came to real-world issues.

Teaching students to solve "rich," real-world math problems can be motivating for students, say 92 percent of teachers in an EdWeek survey, reports Alyson Klein. However, educators are divided: Half say students learn best by learning procedures, while the other half say teaching the problem-based approach works best. Some say teaching through problems takes too much time or that they're not trained to do it well.

"We keep mistaking where we want kids to go with how to get them there," says John Mighton in an interview with Holly Korbey on her Bell Ringer site. Exposing students to "authentic, rich, real-world problems" is confusing, he argues. It may require more reading skills or background knowledge than students have.

He created Jump Math, a research-backed K-8 curriculum, that starts with the simplest possible version of a problem. The teacher leads by "structured inquiry," leading students through a series of questions about blue and green marbles. Once they can recognize and solve different types of problems, they move on to very simple word problems.

"When I hear people talk about '21st Century problem-solvers,' I know we are in trouble," says Mighton. "I know that that means overwhelming half the class."

Students should be treated "as novice learners, not expert learners at first," he says. Math should be "hard, but not too hard." When students are 85 percent proficient in something -- some call it the "Goldilocks Zone" -- they feel a sense of mastery, says Mighton.

"Kids love mastery," he tells Korbey. They love challenges. "I stopped a fight once by telling the bully if he didn't apologize, I wouldn't give him his bonus question!"

Learning math can be joyful, he argues. And it can end with students capable of understanding and tackling those real-world problems.

223 views3 comments



Perhaps all these math ed geniuses should talk to some music teachers. With the piano, you MUST learn scales, cadences, and etudes; but you also learn pieces to keep your interest. But, of course, that's crazy talk.



" It may require more reading skills or background knowledge than students have."

That's a monumental problem. It's hard to teach reading comprehension and math at the same time. It's like trying to teach how to read an analog clock, discussing fractions using the same clock, and decimal place value using a clock to students who know little to nothing about all three (Bridges Math Series).

I stopped focusing on word problems over 15 years ago. My state scores went up dramatically, including MAP and iReady scores. Students who did not do well were very poor readers.


I hate to eliminate word problems since that's sort of how the world actually works, but I also hate that we focus on "improving math teaching" when half our kids can't read or do basic math skills. How about focusing on improving math skills and reading before they get to me (I teach high school)?

bottom of page