Why do we start at Step 2?

In the West it’s common for adults to skip breakfast. This is the case even though everyone from food scientists to intuitive moms agree that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Perhaps this is why, in the math classroom, we often begin a problem at Step 2. Let me offer an example:


You can’t resist. You want to solve it. You want to find out what x is. But solving for x is Step 2. If that’s so, then what’s Step 1?

Step 1 is the most important step of the process! It’s what comes before Step 2. During Step 1, we should go through some process that yields the statement, “Therefore we must solve for x.”

Perhaps Step 1 in this problem is creating the equation from some verbal context, like, “Tito makes $12 per hour and gets a $25 bonus every Friday. Last Friday he made $115. How many hours did he work that day?” There has to be a reason the equation is there.

There doesn’t even have to be a real-world context. There’s nothing wrong with practicing techniques to solving an equation. But what’s essential is remembering why we’re doing it. I know the danger of using a sports analogy with mathematics, but I can’t resist the obvious! There’s a difference between idly kicking a ball at a goal and doing it while imagining you’re Ronaldo. My baseball coach would insist that during batting practice we always followed through on our swing, dropped the bat, and started sprinting towards first base. After all, what’s the point of hitting the ball if you’re not going to run? And we’re not just running anywhere! We’re going to first base. We’re intending to score.

It needs to be the same with math. Step 1 is deciding where we’re going. Are we going to graph this? Do we know it’s linear? Do we understand it’s not proportional? Is it clear that there is only one solution?

Instead of jumping headlong into Step 2, let’s make sure we instill in students — and ourselves! — a good and healthy Step 1.

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