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Understanding Problem Solving: what a cartoon pig can teach us

What can a cartoon pig teach us about math?

It turns out a lot actually. The cartoon pig I am referring to is Ormie. Ormie is a short film (and by short I mean 4 minutes, so it is perfect to show in the classroom) written and directed by Rob Silvestri in 2010. Ormie is a pig who really wants the cookies that are on top of the fridge. He tries all sorts of ways to get his heart’s desire, and just as he has the cookie in his hoof, a fishbowl lands on top of his head, oh the irony. This video has been my favorite way to discuss problem solving at the beginning of the year.

My primary goal as a high school math teacher is to improve my students’ relationship with math. Every action, response, and message I send to my students will play a direct role in how they see themselves as mathers (someone who does math, coined by Deborah Peart) and how they see the subject of math. In other words, I must be intentional. As I have stated in a previous post, this begins on day one. But what do I do on day two? I introduce them to Ormie the pig.

When I first came across this video, I immediately knew that I wanted to tie it to problem solving. In the beginning iterations of this lesson, I just had students list all of the different strategies and whether or not they worked. The message of persistence and creativity was only moderately received. I knew I could do better. This summer I have been reading, How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg and she said,

“Mathematics is the extension of common sense by other means. Without the rigorous structure that math provides, common sense can lead you astray…. Without the constant interplay between abstract reasoning and our intuitions about quantity, time, space, motion, behavior, and uncertainty - [formal mathematics] would just be a sterile exercise in rule following and bookkeeping.”

Light bulb. What I was missing from earlier iterations of this lesson was what math actually is. So many of my students already think math is rule following and bookkeeping. But what I want them to develop and lean into more is their intuition while also following sound mathematical rules and principles. So I developed this definition of math:

Math uses logically sound principles, theorems and rules based on patterns to solve problems and make sense of the world. Mathematics is an extension of common sense. It explains why common sense makes sense.

After I present this definition of math, we can go back to Ormie and dig into why he chose the strategies he did. They seem common sense, but there are underlying math and physics principles backing them up. Then we can discuss how mistakes and errors play a role in this problem solving process. I still end up hitting on themes of persistence and creativity, but is not the focus anymore. When students can see that math is MORE THAN following algorithms, they can see more of their world. As Ellenberg puts it, “knowing mathematics is like wearing x-ray specs that reveal hidden structures of the world.” I am their guide to help them understand the techniques of mathematics and to help them develop the habits of problem solvers.

Here is my FREE (yes, free) Ormie the Pig Lesson. Included is a slide deck, which guides you and the students through the activity and a graphic organizer for students to complete. Enjoy!


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