A Math Problem to Solve

Some of my favorite memories from elementary school were the math problems that were phrased like stories. Here's one from a math book for 2nd graders:
Sue has a dog. Sue earns $2 for walking her neighbors’ dogs. Neighbor Nelly has 2 dogs, while Neighbor Ned has 3 dogs. How many dogs does Sue walk?
So, what's the correct answer? It's a simple question, isn't it?

Many well-intentioned 2nd grade teachers would tell you the correct answer is 5. Do you see the logic of that answer? Neighbor dogs = 2 + 3. Is 6 not a correct answer? Sue's dog counts, doesn't it? How about 4? 3 works for an answer, doesn't it?

My creatively-minded entrepreneurial students and I have fun discussing this simple math problem. I use it to jumpstart our discussion of lateral thinking. Lateral thinking encourages a shift away from the obvious and, by asking questions and challenging assumptions, derives a different solution than what the norm might imply.

Lateral thinking and other creative problem solving techniques are useful not only in the classroom, but also in the "real world". How have you solved a problem by looking at the problem from another angle? I coined the term "spheroidal observation" to describe the act of viewing problems from multiple angles, not just from those that can be observed by rotating around the problem (i.e., 360 degree observation). Turn the problem upside down, look at it from the bottom, the top, turn it inside out, flip it and reverse it...you get the idea.

Next time you have a problem in need of a solution, how about trying some spheroidal observation? Do you dare?

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