Problem Solving: 3 Ways

I was in a 3rd grade math classroom the other day and the teacher wrote a problem on the board for the students to solve. I was observing this teacher officially and she was nervous for some reason (post coming soon on observation for growth, not punishment!) Due to her nerves, she wrote the problem AND the solution on the board. (NOOOOOOOO!)

Students are notoriously good at pointing out our mistakes, so in less than a second we heard “YOU WROTE THE ANSWER TOO!!”

This teacher on this day looked at her students and gave the best possible response:

The answer isn’t what’s important. The process and thinking you use to get to the answer are important. Now, solve the problem in three different ways, then share with your partner.


This reminded me of one of my favorite TV shows: Chopped

It’s on the Food Network, which I DO NOT suggest watching after 9 pm, because it leads to me having what I call “Dinner: The Sequel” and what doctors call “An Unhealthy Lifestyle”

On this show, chefs are given a basket with several seemingly unrelated ingredients and then given 60 minutes to make a top level dinner entree out of them, to be served to professional chefs as judges. This is what I typically do on “leftover night” only replace “professional chefs as judges” with “annoyed children…also as judges.”

Well, I’d watched several episodes in an attempt to boost my leftovers creativity and I noticed a pattern. In many entrees, the chefs focused on a main ingredient and prepared it “Three Ways.”

For example:

Salmon 3 ways

Pork 3 Ways

Duck 3 Ways


Hungry yet? I hope you’re not reading this within 30 minutes of bedtime.

I was watching real time problem solving as chefs prepared meals. And I watched the judges reward the creativity and ingenuity of chefs who could successfully pull off a fast entree “3 ways.”

Yet in school, a lot of teachers feel that students of all ages need to solve problems as quickly as possible, following a single path and applying a set of time tested procedures. While this may lead to a successful solution, it does not often lead to a satisfied customer.


We live in a world where creativity is valued more than “the right answer.”

We live in a world where we more than think Outside The Box…we wonder why there was a box to begin with.

When we teach math, let’s focus on the process and thinking. Allow your students to follow the most natural route to solving a problem, and then have them listen to another student talk about what was natural for them. Hopefully, creative problem solvers will found everywhere, not just kitchens and Google.

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