Problem Club: Teaching Only When You Have To

The Zoom meeting goes silent, but no one is waiting for the void to be filled. Everyone is deep in thought, puzzling away on a good problem. Ideas, notions, and new questions will come, and in the meantime, we’re not uncomfortable. We must be attending Problem Club at Clarity. 

The Clarity Problem Club was inspired by a 2019 NCTM Shadowcon session during which Chris Nho, a high school math teacher and Public Math organizer, questioned why math teaching wasn’t more like art teaching. Why couldn’t teachers give learners the opportunity to enjoy the journey rather than focus on getting to a solution? He introduced and made the case for this problem club concept and sent us on our way with good problems for four sessions. 

Now at Clarity we use Problem Club as one variety of social activity for gathering among colleagues. (Yes, some of these folks also play Dungeons and Dragons at work.) Every few months we’ll gather for an hour at lunchtime and do math. This used to mean we gathered in the conference room and scribbled on the whiteboard together. These days, of course, we use Zoom.

The Problem Club concept is fairly simple. Start with a good problem. Meet at a time and place without other distractions. Dig in, “surface” the math, and share our discoveries as well as new questions. At Clarity, we have a fairly diverse team when it comes to math confidence. While some studied math in post-secondary, others would never call themselves a “math person” and approach math with caution. By deemphasizing correct answers, Problem Club aims to level the playing field, recognizes that we all have something to learn from each other, and makes math more low-stakes and enjoyable for all. 

We’ve taken the Problem Club norms shared by Nho to heart. One favorite norm, “Teach only if you have to,” requires us to resist the temptation to share solutions and tell others directly about the strategies we used. While sometimes easier said than done, this norm asks us to give each other space to make independent discoveries. 

Instead of one person taking the lead and everyone else trying to keep up, you’ll hear people actively checking how and what they share. If you were to listen in, you’d hear people starting sentences with “I notice…” or “I wonder why…” and actively inviting others to describe what they are working on. Someone may model their idea using one of the The Math Learning Center apps we develop; someone else may create a color-coded representation; one of us always seems to make a spreadsheet. Once, when confronting a problem on inscribed squares inside of Taxi Cab loops, Greg, our engineering manager, used his time off from work to tweak a development version of Geoboard so the Problem Club could find all solutions for any given loop. 

Working on math together, our process and understanding unfolds in ways we find unexpected and ultimately more powerful. But there’s one big problem with Problem Club: stopping at the end of the hour to get back to our clients’ work. When we do, we’re bringing Problem Club’s spirit of collegiality, playfulness, collaboration, problem-solving, and life-long learning along with us.

Looking for a good problem to start your own club? Try some of these sources: Julia Robinson Math Festival, MoMath, and Math Pickle.

 
In July 2021, Tod Johnston joined our extended network of alumni.