I am beginning the planning stages of our unit on solving equations in Algebra 1. In my past experiences, some students pick this up very quickly, no matter how you teach it, while other students struggle mightily. I want to try some alternate approaches this year, to really reach those students who have not been able to learn this skill in the past. I remembered an order of operations approach that I read about in the NCTM magazine a few years back. I can't recall the name of the article, but a little google searching found me this document that is even better than what I remembered.

Our students in Numeracy already work with bar modeling to solve word problems, so this seems like a natural extension to solving equations. I like this approach because it helps focus on the idea that the variable is a given quantity that must be determined, instead of focusing on the steps that isolate the variable. It also might help with those difficult to master "converting verbal sentences to algebraic equations" problems. Here are a few examples of how this might look. I know the diagrams are a bit confusing at first, but I think they would make more sense to students as they watch them get created and do them by themselves.

I also like the other representation discussed in the article. This is the original order of operations process that I had been searching for. I like this because it gives a very clear framework for solving equations - reversing the order of operations.

When you look at each stage, you can draw equal signs between the boxes. These would be equivalent to the intermediate statements in the traditional "do the same thing to both sides" approach.

So for the unit, I am thinking that we would spend two or three lessons on bar models to build the concept of what we are actually trying to do (find the value of the unknown amount). Then, spend a couple lessons on the order of operations representation to build an understanding of the process for isolating the variable. Finally, transition to the traditional approach, which is clearly the fastest and cleanest way to solve an equation of the three. This would take more time, of course, but the hope is that it would build a more enduring understanding.

Has anyone tried these methods with their students?

Edit:

I wonder now if it would make more sense to start in with modeling sentence/word problems with the bar model method, and not start by saying that we are "solving equations". That way, more students would be engaged with the material, and we could eventually use the bar models to develop the equations.

This way, the unit doesn't start with the problem "solve (3/5)x = 45", which will stop most kids dead in their tracks, but maybe with something like "It took Sandra 45 minutes to finish 3/5 of her homework. How long will it take her to finish it all?", which kids might have more of an entry to. After we solve it, we can then discuss how to represent it as an equation.

Edit 2:

I also need to think about how to incorporate the balance idea and preserving equality... Kids don't always know what the equal sign really means. Maybe in the transition time from the box method to the traditional method?

Edit 3:

(Written on 10/27 - at the end of the unit)

On reflection, the problem was not having enough time to really devote to the two alternative methods. Both did show a lot of promise, but we weren't able to really practice either enough for it to really stick with students. The bar model method really worked to help students set up and solve word problems, so I think I will stick with that next year. Give it some more time so that it really sinks in and can be used to get a deeper understanding of fractional coefficients. I will probably save the GERMDAS method for individual tutoring with students who are not having success with the traditional balance method. Less fights... more differentiation.

All of these lessons have been added to the box widget on the left.