I’m on a quest to eliminate the boring, meaningless procedural practice from my curriculum and replace it with purposeful, meaningful, fun tasks that serve the same purposes as what they are replacing. This is Post 2.

I’ve spent some time wondering why people – myself included – like Sudoku. Or Ken-Ken. Or any puzzle for that matter. Even actual, physical puzzles, like of the 1000-piece variety. People put themselves through such tedious work, I think for the satisfaction of making small progress towards a tangible goal that will eventually bring them great satisfaction when they accomplish it.

Frequently, I’ve created exercises, used handouts, and written test questions of this format: “Write the equation of the line (or parabola, circle, ellipse, etc.) that meets criteria ___________.” For example, courtesy of Kuta Software:

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Most people – most students – hate these questions. It’s irrelevant that practicing these questions will pay dividends down the road. These questions represent tedium with little payoff. Puzzles can be tedious too, but they are also satisfying and fun. Students don’t despise math exercises like this because they are tedious; they despise them because they’re rarely satisfying or fun.

But all hope is not lost. Giving purpose to this practice makes the tedium more tolerable. I recently read Henri Picciotto’s recommended approach for getting students to understand how equations (and their parameters) connect to graphs, and how to build functions that produce graphs with certain criteria. In Picciotto’s approach, called “Make These Designs,” students are presented with an image on a TI-83, that they must produce:


This approach is more like a puzzle than the worksheet shown earlier. In the examples above, y=mx+b would be used (at the teacher’s suggestion, if necessary) and students must determine which values of m and b are needed to make each part of the image, chipping away at this mystery bit by bit until they complete it.

Having done versions of this with students, I can say that kids were engaged and enjoyed the process, and got all the reps they would have gotten from a rote worksheet on the same topic. It’s exactly the kind of exercise that would make boring practice more engaging.