Your 12 year old son stares at his word problems for the past 20 minutes and nothing has been written by him to solve it.
Not even a doodle.
Next, you see your 10 year old daughter busy doodling away at her word problems with cats, fishes, mermaids and all kinds of animals…but not the solutions to her word problems.
Then, your son ‘writes something’.
It turns out to be a doodle of a dinosaur.
A frown soon surfaces from your face.
Then, you yelled at them to work harder but they only paused what they were doing…and picking up where they left off.
You looked at their textbooks but get overwhelmed like them. Your textbook in the past had lots of worked examples for you to refer and relate to in your homework but their way of learning is to understand concepts deeply with 1 or 2 worked examples and figure out the rest of the details themselves.
It all seems in vain for you and doomed for your children.
Well, not quite.
There is a simple solution to the feelings your children are experiencing. In fact, you can also try out this solution yourself whenever you are stuck at solving a problem.
It is called…giving yourself a break.
How does giving yourself a break, a non-math activity, help your children move from stuck to solving their word problems! Isn’t this supposed to be a blog post about math concepts that help your children solve math problems in 3 minutes?!
This is what happens when you give yourself a break.
Your mind goes from feeling like it’s going to explode into bits and pieces to a relaxed and calm state, like you were taking a vacation at the seaside.
With a relaxed and calm mind, you see through the ‘fog’ that surrounds the solutions to the problem, and you feel like you were released from the chains of your previous thoughts.
In scientific terms, we call this incubation. This is when the mind flips the problem over and over again like flipping pancakes repeatedly until it finds the right solutions.
According to the book ‘How we learn’ by Benedict Carey, distracting ourselves from the problem which we are stuck at lets us step back from the problem to solve to gain different perspectives to solve the problem.
In the same book, a study was conducted to find out whether a few minutes of rest affects people differently when they are given vague hints to solve a problem as compared to those who are not given vague hints.
The results of the study showed those who got the rest solved two times as many problems as compared to the ones who got the same vague hints but not given a break.
In other words, ‘break’ time or ‘rest’ time WORKS.
Let me give you a personal example on 19 February 2018 at 10 a.m. as a case study.
19 February 2018 at 10 a.m.
A mother of a Primary 6 boy asked me, during her son’s lesson with me at her house, to help her solve a Primary 6 challenging exam math problem in a different way. She wanted to find out if I could come up with a simple and easy to understand solution she could explain to her son.
I agreed to help her out. I was quite confident I could come up with one in less than five minutes.
Here is the word problem.
Shop X sells bags of candies at $7 each.
Shop Y sells bags of candies at $4 each.
Shop X sells $296 more candies than Shop Y but sells 25 bags less than Shop Y.
How many bags of candies did Shop X sell?
This word problem was a nightmare for me.
It took me THIRTY minutes to understand what the problem meant. For a tutor who has over 12 years of teaching experience in primary math, this was one of the rare moments where I felt like I was trying to pry open a durian with my bare hands.
And after thirty minutes, this was my first attempt to solve the problem.
If you looked at my first attempt, I had drawn diagrams to represent the sentences so that I could understand what the question was clearly.
And you can tell from the image above it looked like I was on a long and tedious way to solve the problem.
I tried walking around the living room where we were having lessons for 5 minutes to solve the problem.
I was still stuck.
Then, a thought came to me.
Number of bags of candies from Shop X = Number of bags of candies from Shop Y.
And this is how it looks.
Then, as I went on. I got stuck.
For the rest of the time, I had no idea what I was talking about while explaining this to my student.
This is a wild-goose-chase.
So, I decided to solve the problem the third time…and the lesson was ending in 10 minutes.
This was not much different from the first attempt. I could feel my brain tightening in my head, like a sponge being squeezed dry of water.
And the lesson ended.
3 failed attempts in 90 minutes.
I requested to the mother to let me come up with a simple and easy-to-understand solution while on my way to lunch.
On my way to lunch, I took a bus. I was still thinking about the simple solution in the bus.
Then, while walking in the underpass, the same attempts clogged my mind.
Then, I had to take the MRT train to my lunch venue at Holland Village.
Even in the train, I still could not figured out the simple solution.
I looked back at the set of 1 bag of candy from Shop X and 1 bag of candy from Shop Y.
It was here that I hear a voice within me.
“Have you thought of making both quantities of candies to be the same from Shop X and Shop Y?”
Another thought hit me.
“Why not add 25 bags of candies to Shop Y so that both have the same number of bags of candies for Shop X and Y? Then, we can compare the difference in sales between both shops and divide it by the difference in cost between 1 bag of candy from X and 1 bag of candy from Y.”
This sounds really exciting!
I took out my paper and sketched out the solution with my pen.
And this is the fourth attempt of solving.
The problem was solved with a simple and elegant solution.
Looking back at the problem-solving experience, I was stuck at solving the word problem for 90 minutes at the student’s house.
Then, in 5 minutes, I came up with a simple solution to the word problem.
I couldn’t figure out why until I realised what caused me to solve it.
I cast aside the problem when I was lost for directions at a bus stop.
What an irony!
The solution appears when you stop thinking about it!
So, here is your action step.
When your child is stuck at solving a word problem for at least 15 minutes and he or she has tried all possible ways to solve it but to no avail,
give your child a 5 to 15 minute break away from the problem.
It is that simple.
Imagine exchanging 90 minutes of tantrum throwing, doodling, disinterest for 5 to 15 minutes of calmness and peace from your children…
And then leaving your short fuses alone after a long and tiring day of work for you.
FEEL THE SHIFT OF YOUR MOOD FROM A FROWN TO A SMILE ON YOUR FACE…and free up time for yourself to go for a swim with your friends…while knowing your child is happily crushing even the most challenging word problems with a 5 to 15 minute break!
If you are interested to read and use these practical and easy-to-use habits to help your child score an A in Math exams with minimal stress, greater confidence and interest, sign up for my weekly newsletter in the link below!