As I reflected on how we are struggling with the problem-solving process, I think I realize why we may be having difficulty.
When we teach reading, we introduce skills and students apply those skills as they read - reading to learn something new, reading for pleasure, reading to answer questions, reading to understand. When students can apply their acquired reading skills to select books of their own, when they know how to find information about a topic they're interested in, when they can discuss a book or a story with others, or when they can persevere to make sense of a difficult passage or article, we are confident that they have the skills to be a literate learner.
Yet we do not provide opportunities for students to apply math skills to real-world problems which are all around them. We teach skills in isolation, and after students have practiced that skill and seem to understand the process, we move on to the next mathematical concept. We may assign word problems that may or may not be realistic or meaningful to students. We may play math games or read books about math or sing songs, but we don't give students the opportunity to apply the math skills in a meaningful way so students can make sense of why this is important to know and be able to do.
Rather than make up problems involving percentages or decimal points, why not have students look at newspaper ads to determine which store has the best value on a laptop or a Wii? Can we have students plan a meal and then determine what they will need to purchase at the market and how much that might cost? How about walking around the school and taking photos of different patterns they find and putting together a slide show? Or bring in menus from a restaurant and have students figure out what they could buy with a certain amount of money.
Our fifth grade has an organic Hope Garden which is hands-on and project-based. Students learn science and social studies concepts; they research so they can post a comment to a question on their Hope Garden blog; they decide what they want to plant and why; and they do math. Lots of math. Students measure the plots and determine the perimeter and area of each plot as well as the whole garden. They do experiments and measure the growth of different plants. They predict how many ears of corn they will harvest and share their strategy. They weigh their harvest, decide on how to package what they've grown, and keep track of their expenditures and profits. All these different activities help students realize that literacy -- reading, writing, AND math -- can be part of their everyday lives. This relevance is what makes the Hope Garden so popular with our fifth graders.