Solving Wicked Problems

I have been working at addressing a wicked problem in my classroom for the last 3 and a half weeks or so. The difficulty with wicked problems is that there is no final solution. This is particularly evident in a classroom, where each of your students has their own needs and strengths. So solving my wicked problem, making math more meaningful in my Algebra 1 classroom, may never truly happen. My aim in making math more meaningful is to get students more engaged and motivated in my classroom. This is essential for long term learning, so I have to try.


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Trying to solve a problem as complicated as making math more meaningful requires a fair amount of research. I need to know what helps engage and motivate students so that I can try to bring some of those things to my classroom. I researched the effectiveness of bringing in an outside speaker. According to McKain (2012), speakers can improve students attitudes toward math, including algebra. However, McKain’s work did not show an improvement in performance on end-of-year tests, which means bringing in speakers appears to have limited effectiveness. I continued with my research. I discovered that students will be more motivated and engaged when they are engaged in authentic activites (Vaniero, 2016). While this is very promising, it does not help me solve my problem unless I know what an authentic activity is.  Fortunately, Stepien and Gallagher (1993) let me know what problem-based learning is an authentic activity. It has students solving real-world problems in a way the engages their thinking, and forces them to recognize concepts that will lead them through the learning required. I love the idea of bringing problem-based learning to my classroom, but further searching did not uncover much that would help me with my content. I teach Algebra 1, and a majority of the problem-based modules that I found in my searches ended well before high school content. While I found this disappointing, I continued to search. I believe that I can adapt some lessons that are more “post-hole” type problems. These are problems similar to problem-based lessons, but can be completed in a shorter amount of time. Lessons like 3-Act Math would take perhaps a single class period, but still push students to think conceptually and solve problems with minimal teacher guidance. Gasser (2011) had some other examples of activities to engage and spark inquiry that have been used in Asian classrooms. He also indicated that problem-based learning is essential. The question for me now, is how do I begin implementing this learning in my classroom?

I sent out a survey to my peers at school to help get some feedback on where to begin. They indicated that they put significant effort into making real-world connections to their content. This further spurred me to incorporate authentic activities into my teaching.

I put together a plan, based on what I think will be manageable.


I intend to implement things slowly, so that I can see what works and what does not work, instead of just throwing in a bunch of new things all at once. I want to know what is really working to help my students be more engaged and motivated. Otten and Soria (2014) found that if authentic activities are not implemented faithfully, then students are not making the connections and exploring concepts as intended. This means it may take me a while to get these problem-based lessons just right in my classroom. I expect this process will take me some time, but I am prepared to try and fail as necessary.

I have already begun the first step in my plan. Since my goal is to bring problem-based learning into my classroom, I have put together a lesson plan to do just that. As problem-based learning focuses and on the concepts behind the mathematical procedures, it seems the best time to introduce it would be at the beginning of a unit. Each unit in my algebra class focuses on a particular mathematical theme (Linear Equations, Systems of Equations, etc). To tie together the reason for learning it (real-world applicability) and the concepts that underlie the procedures, I am looking to begin each unit with a day or two of problem-based learning. I will be scouring the internet for assistance (there are some great activities in 3-Act Math) to put these lessons together. My first lesson plan was inspired by a Stein (2015) presentation. I have turned it into my personal creation to introduce my Forms of Quadratics unit. You can find it here

If you are interested, you can see the presentation that summarizes my wicked-problem solving journey below.


Gasser, K. (2011). Five ideas for 21st century math classrooms. American Secondary Education, 39(3), 108-116. Retrieved from

McKain, D. R. (2012). Making math real: Effective qualities of guest speaker presentations and the impact of speakers on student attitude and achievement in the algebra classroom (Order No. 3577482). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1469000379). Retrieved from

Otten, S., & Soria, V. M. (2014, March 16). Relationships between students’ learning and their participation during enactment of middle school algebra tasks. Retrieved July 24, 2019, from

Stein, M. K. (2015, November 19). 5 Practices for orchestrating productive mathematics discussions. In Carnegie Learning Webinar. Retrieved August 1, 2019, from

Stepien, W., & Gallagher, S. (1993). Problem-based learning: As authentic as it gets. Educational Leadership,50(7), 25. Retrieved August 1, 2019, from

Vaniero, G. (2016). The effects of applying authentic math assignments to increase student motivation and attention (Order No. 10108637). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1793670247). Retrieved from