Problem Solving with “Aunt Emma”

Are you looking for a classroom activity, which will stimulate your students’ thinking? Would you like to witness a spark of excitement in your classroom as students start to problem solve in a creative manner? If so, you might want to introduce them to “Aunt Emma”. From her picture below, you will note that Aunt Emma looks different depending on your point of view. Some view her to be a young woman whereas others think she is rather old and ugly. Regardless, this Aunt Emma exercise should help students focus and look at problems from a variety of angles. Hopefully, such activities will help your students look at, and analyze, problems in a different light as they develop the “HOTS” (Higher Order Thinking Skills).

Aunt-EmmaThis exercise works best when you are working with at least 10 students. One begins by explaining to the class that you were going to introduce them to the likes and dislikes of your favorite aunt … Aunt Emma. You might begin by stating the following clues:

  • “My Aunt Emma likes tennis but hates curling.”
  • “She likes skiing but doesn’t like skating.”
  • “Auntie is ‘wild’ about coffee but dislikes tea.”

The class environment for this problem solving exercise is critical. Encourage students to hypothesize (to themselves) about the relationships between the things that Aunt Emma likes and dislikes. If, for example, a student states, “Your Aunt Emma likes movies but hates T.V.”, you can simply reply … “No … I don’t think you know my Aunt Emma.” Whereas a student who volunteers that “Aunt Emma likes baseball and dislikes golf” can be encouraged with “I believe you have met my Aunt Emma.”

It is very important that students are given initial instructions not to tell the class or classmates what they believe the rule to be. Rather they are encouraged to test their hypotheses by volunteering items, which Aunt Emma likes and dislikes. Explain to students that you want as many of your students to become excited when they discover for themselves what Aunt Emma likes and dislikes. Those students who blurt out a hint are robbing their classmates of the thrill of discovery that is so important in the problem solving process. Be definite that you will only accept statements from students who begin with “I think Aunt Emma likes … and dislikes … “. Be quick to interrupt any child who attempts to short-circuit this problem-solving activity by blurting out the reason for Aunt Emma’s likes and dislikes.

Some teachers may wish to bring both local and world Geography into this exercise by selecting nearby streets in the neighbourhood as follows:

  • Aunt Emma frequently drives down Jessie Avenue but avoids driving down Lilac Street
  • Aunt Emma enjoys traveling on McPhillips Street but doesn’t drive on Atlantic Avenue
  • Aunt Emma loves visiting Greece but does not like Ireland
  • During the long winter. Aunt Emma travels to Hawaii but never to Florida

Encourage students to test hypotheses regarding Aunt Emma’s likes and dislikes. It is exciting to watch a spark ignite in your classroom as one or two students see the pattern or discover Aunt Emma’s rule and assist you by giving clues to her likes and dislikes for their classmates. Provided students do not give hints to their friends (because you want as many students as possible “have the light go on” for themselves), you will see a spark of excitement smolder and burst into flames as the higher order thinking skills take over and students begin making inferences about Aunt Emma’s likes and dislikes.

I have usually conducted this activity with middle and senior years’ students (ages 10 – 17) by simply giving verbal descriptions of Emma’s likes and dislikes. For younger children, or those having difficulty solving the problem, one can assist them by putting Aunt Emma’s likes and dislikes on a blackboard, interactive white board, or overhead projector to assist those who need visual clues. Some of these might include:

  AUNT EMMA’S
LIKES & DISLIKES

Likes Dislikes
noodles soup
jogging walking
cookies cake
apples oranges
loonies quarters
Jeep Ford
hammer screwdriver
baseball hockey
the colour green the colour red

 

The visual clues, shown using a projection device or blackboard, (as opposed to strictly auditory ones) should help many more students become actively engaged in this problem-solving task. It is a good idea for the teacher to have a list of Aunt Emma’s likes and dislikes prepared in advance. However, rather than the teacher always providing the clues, it is important to go back to students who seem to have deciphered the likes and dislikes of Emma to continue contributing in order to help their classmates and reinforce that they, indeed, have the correct solution to the problem. If some students need a little more help, you can always share some of Aunt Emma’s favorites, such as:

  • Aunt Emma LOVES reading the “Winnipeg Free Press” but hates the “Globe and Mail”
  • Aunt Emma LOVES the Mississippi and Assiniboine but dislikes the Red and Seine rivers
  • She loves “beetles” (insects) but hates the “Fab Four” band known as the “Beatles”

Lastly, if some students still need additional help, you can always underline the double-letter “M”’s in Aunt Emma’s name as a final clue. I have found this classroom activity helps focus the students’ thinking about relationships and attributes and broadens their perspectives in problem-solving.

In summary, the importance of the teacher in a problem-solving environment must not be overlooked. Although problem-solving resources and the computer, with appropriate software, can help create the “teachable moment”, it is important that teachers question the thinking process that students go through as well as a model effective problem solving strategies. Often a three-step questioning approach is useful:

  1. “What do you think?” helps focus the student’s position. No comment should be made as to whether that position is right or wrong but it should be follow by;
  2. “Why do you think it?” This step provides students with an opportunity to state the rationale behind their thinking. Additional questions which explore exceptions, special cases and apparent contradictions, will cause students to expand their thinking to the limits; and
  3. “How did you figure it out?” asks the student to relate the steps or processes used in arriving at that position.

The teacher must be involved in the problem solving process and must pursue all three steps of the questioning model. Whether the initial answer to “What do you think?” Is right or wrong is irrelevant. The answers to the final two questions are much more revealing than the answer to the first one. The teacher, through proper questioning, can assist students to develop problem-solving strategies that can apply in a variety of circumstances or subject areas.

Take care & keep smiling 🙂

Resources:
“Aunt Emma” Poster – A useful PDF image for promoting this activity.
Optical illusion: Old or young woman? Solution! This YouTube video will help you distinguish between the “young” and “old” woman in this famous optical illusion.
– Source: Slight modifications have been made to an earlier article, I wrote entitled “Problem Solving with Aunt Emma” by Brian Metcalfe – “Bits and Bytes” – Vol. 16 No. 6 – Apr. 2000.

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