In the first conversation I had with Jasmine Walker at TMC16, we started chatting about the Exeter problem sets, one of my favorite topics. She admitted that she hadn’t much of a chance recently to fit them into her teaching, but they were a great outlet for recreational problem solving. I couldn’t agree more. Those Exeter sets read like a great novel. Following threads, seeing where they end up and how they unexpectedly meet up with others, hearing about the new adventures of Alex in the desert… My first experiences with the sets were with Exeter Math Institutes run by legends like Rick Parris and Joe Wolfson, where we would just work through the problems for hours with other teachers. They were a lot of fun.
Aside from the problem solving itself, something I always take away from sessions like those (and workshops like TMC itself) is what it is like to be a student. It’s very easy to forget the particular frustration of solving foreign problems. Each teacher needs this reminder every now and again.
So when Jasmine suggested some teachers get together virtually to take a crack at the PCMI problems from this year, I was down.
Four of us met up via Google Hangout and jumped in on the 2016 PCMI problems. It was a whole lot of fun. Here are some quick and dirty highlights.
- These were probability problems and each of the four admitted that we don’t usually teach probability and all had a weak intuition for it. This made the suspension of teacher reality pretty easy. In addition, we all had something we wanted to learn from the experience.
- I worked on the problems in advance. Some I breezed through, and some I was stumped on. A few of my breezy problems became huge topics of conversation, and not trivially. My perspective is just that. It’s mine. Hearing someone ask a solid question about something I took for granted (and maybe shouldn’t have) caught me off guard in the best possible way.
- There was one problem, Day 1 #9, that I was stumped on completely when I looked ahead of time. Together we started working through and other group members made a pretty sweet observation tying fibonacci numbers to example cases. I broke off and needed to find this connection. I did find it and explained it to the group. This feels good. It’s the crossroads of failure and teamwork. I’ve been aware of the “You explain your classmate’s solution” prompt for a long time, but this experience reminds me how powerful it can be.
So maybe this is just an ad for the next #mathplaydate. Hopefully we’ll do it again soon!