Andrei Toom – Universidade Federal de Pernambuco
The seminar is sponsored by FCT Program FEDER/POCTI 2010
In school mathematical education a word problem is a problem, which includes non-mathematical words; these words need to be interpreted mathematically to solve the problem. Word problems may mention everything around us: distance, time and velocity, moving cars, ships and planes, walkers and runners, pumps, pipes and pools, mixtures, time and ages, lengths, areas and volumes, prices, percentages, profit, discounts, interest and taxes etc., etc. One great advantage of word problems is that they connect school math with other subjects: physics, chemistry, geography, astronomy etc. Another advantage of word problems is that they teach children to plan multi-step intellectual activity. Indeed, word problems may be classified according to the number of steps (operations with numbers) which need to be undertaken to solve a problem. In Russia word problems may need several steps to solve, in American school almost all problems are one-step. Also in American education there is a strange mixture of opposite attitudes towards word problems: sometimes they are treated as trivial, sometimes as too hard. Attitudes of American students towards word problems are well illustrated by a cartoon of the series "Far Side" showing "Hell library" full of collections of story problems. Why are word problems so easily treated in Russia and so hard and threatening in USA? The purpose of this talk is to try to answer this question and to clarify the ambiguous attitudes of American students and teachers towards word problems.