How Old?

The other evening, I was sitting with my husband and son at a candlelight Christmas service, singing carols and feeling merry.  One of the carols mentioned “shepherds” and right on cue, my 11-year-old son leans over and whispers… “There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock…”  (You Know Your Mom’s a Math Teacher When…)  It took everything in me not to burst into laughter right then and there.  I’m thankful for this holiday moment, as it reminded me to post briefly about the problem scenario – “How Old is the Shepherd?” (Which I may or may not have had my son experience as a guinea pig before presenting it to my own students…)

Perhaps I missed this post shared by Robert Kaplinsky because he composed it on my birthday, but I was thankful that Michael Fenton mentioned it to me in a recent conversation about teaching for understanding.  The minute I saw it, I knew I wanted to present the scenario to my students, and follow up with Robert’s fascinating video.  I also shared the video with my colleagues, who watched in amazement, and also decided to present the task to their students.  I’ll admit it… my colleagues and I were skeptical, thinking our results might be better… that our students wouldn’t fall for it.

However… I tried to put myself in the shoes of the students Robert interviewed.  I can imagine the 8th-grade-me feeling pressured to do math when presented with a problem, a white board, a dry-erase marker, and a one-on-one exchange with a teacher I respected and wanted to please.  Might that pressure have impacted students to number-pick without understanding, feeling the obligation to provide an answer?  If so, how could my colleagues and I reduce that pressure while creating that one-on-one environment where no one student could create a “spoiler alert” by calling out… “Hey!  This problem makes no sense!”

We decided to present the task using Nearpod.  We administered the task using a Nearpod-generated pin that fostered a “student-paced” format, and gave students the opportunity to draw and explain their thinking.  During quarterly exams before we went on break, after students handed in their tests, they completed the Nearpod task.  When students tried to come to my desk to discuss the task with a look of confusion, they didn’t challenge me when I said, “I’m sorry, others are still testing so we’ll have to keep a silent testing environment right now.  Please do the best you can.”

For the record, my poker face stinks.  I am amazed at Robert’s ability to remain respectfully stoic.  Even as students walked away from my desk, confused or frustrated, I had to look away to hide my cheesy grin – yet another reason using Nearpod was awesome, and frankly in my case… necessary.

Nearpod allowed my colleagues and me to maintain access to student responses using Nearpod reports, and comparing then during our PLC time was both interesting and somewhat disheartening… our students’ results were very much like those in Robert’s video.  When I looked at my Math 8 students’ responses, approximately 38% “made sense”.  When I looked at my Algebra 1 students’ responses… I was shocked to see that they, too, had a success rate of about 38%!

Here are some “Not Making Sense” work samples – incorrectly using division was, by far, the most common method I saw:



In spite of our attempt to try to lighten the pressure to provide an answer by using Nearpod as our tool of delivery, some students who smelled a rat clearly also felt obligated to give the math teacher “the answer”:




Some students called our bluff with grace and/or humor:



This information left us (teachers) asking a lot of questions about instructional next-steps.  One idea we had was to use student work samples to create a new Nearpod for discussion the next day in class before playing Robert’s video and asking the follow-up question, “What did you learn from this experience?”

After showcasing and discussing a variety of student work samples and showing Robert’s video, students gasped in amazement and started sharing about how they felt when presented with the task initially. MANY students admitted that they thought the problem was silly, yet felt obligated to do work and “get an answer” to please me or out of fear that I would “grade” it and they wouldn’t do well if they didn’t get an answer.  I’m also glad I asked them what they learned as a follow-up.  Check out a few responses from the Nearpod report at the end of this post.

While I’m left feeling like this experience was a square one in many ways, I know that I’ll be able to reference it during lessons, moving forward.

Have you used this task with students?  

If so, what were your instructional next-steps?

Want to use my initial Nearpod?  Grab it here.

Want to view my follow-up Nearpod?  View it here and create your own using your students’ work.

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3 Responses to How Old?

  1. I really enjoyed reading your take on this. It’s somewhere between comforting and distressing that your students experienced many of the same results that mine did. Particularly distressing is how students feel compelled to provide an answer, even if they “smelled a rat.” Thanks for sharing!

    • Cathy Yenca says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Robert! Students’ sense of obligation TO US to provide US with an answer really made me think. I wonder if simply putting them through this experience will help grow their confidence to question us/”the book”/reasonableness of solutions more?

  2. Pingback: Educator Blogging: What Do the Teachers Have to Say? – SLM508CNC: Corey Clark's Blog

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