First-Grade Math Problem Has MIT Grad Stumped, Can You Solve It?

Robin Zlotnick - Author

Jun. 17 2023, Updated 5:45 p.m. ET

Since I was in school, let's just say many years ago, the way they teach math has dramatically shifted. I don't know exactly why. It seems they realized that there was a better way to instill mathematical principles in kids than to quiz them on their times tables until they have them memorized.

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But because math is taught differently now, or perhaps because math teachers aren't the best at writing word problems, I feel like there are more and more school-level math problems that not only stump kids but parents too. Take this latest viral math problem, which was in a first-grader's workbook.

Source: Twitter
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Helen's friend — an MIT grad, she later reveals — could not for the life of him figure out what this problem means. And neither could Helen. So she shared it with the Twitterverse to see if those on the internet had any bright ideas.

I many questions about this problem. First of all, what is a "math drawing"? That's not a term I have ever heard before in my entire life. You seemingly have to first make the pictures equal using "math drawings," and then connect them with an equal sign to make "number sentences."

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Ostensibly, the first picture and the second picture should match up enough to put an equal sign between them. But beyond that, I just don't get it. And neither did the people of Twitter.

"Are you...supposed to draw the exact same fruits in the second basket?????" asks one person. "To make them 'equal'????? I feel like it's a psychology experiment and not a math problem." I agree with this person's assessment, although I don't think she used nearly enough question marks.

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Source: Twitter

Ben seemed confident in his answer, above, but it didn't make much sense to most other people. "What," Helen responded to his theory. The problem is the drawing part. You can't subtract the fruit from the basket because it's there already. In ink. On the paper. 

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In an update to her original tweet, Helen wrote, "OK after a deep read we're leaning toward the idea that each individual fruit constitutes one (1) 'math drawing,' so drawing five fruits would be 'math drawings' plural." That's...a step. But it still seems a little off. 

If one fruit is a math drawing and you have to make both pictures equal with math drawings, are you just supposed to...copy the picture exactly? I'm not sure what that teaches. 

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But someone else had a similar sort of problem at their fingertips and shared it with an explanation that seemed to be the most realistic possibility. 

Source: Twitter
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So maybe you have to draw the same number of fruits but they can be different types of fruit and grouped together in different ways. You know what would have really helped with this worksheet? A sample problem where they showed you how to do it! Because what Kate shows us and seems to describe seems like it makes sense!

A college math instructor chimed in with his thoughts and talked a little bit about the probable purpose of the assignment: "College math instructor here. My thought: make sure that both baskets have the same number of fruit. You could do this by adding three oranges and two bananas to the right, but you could also add FOUR oranges and two bananas, and then an extra orange to the left!

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"I have a feeling that a big point here is to get students to think of the '=' sign as not just meaning 'the answer is' — that's what leads kids to think that statements like 7=2+5 or 6=6 are wrong — but rather meaning that the things on either side are equal *to each other.*"

With that explanation, it kind of makes sense. I get the idea that you want to teach kids that "=" doesn't just mean "here's the answer" but that the two sides of the equation are actually equal to each other. This problem, though, is just extremely poorly worded.

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