How Do You Weigh a Giraffe? Problem Solving with Math

From the Lectures Series: Art and Craft of Mathematical Problem Solving

By Paul Zeitz, Ph.D., University of San Francisco

Problem solving requires a change in your attitude—almost a new mindset. Discover how thinking creatively can help you solve math problems (and daily life problems) with a new ease. 
Image of complex math formulas on paper with ball pen aside.

Chainsaw the Giraffe: Creatively Solving Problems

There is an inspiring article that highlights thinking outside of the box when it comes to solving problems.  The article compares a gifted class of middle school students with a remedial sort of vocational class, the article was measuring the creativity of the students. The experiment asked the students in each class one question: How do you weigh a giraffe?

solving problems

The students in the gifted class were not so much gifted as successful, and they were used to succeeding and used to pleasing their teacher. They panicked because they didn’t know how to answer this question. This was way before the Internet, and the students couldn’t go online and look it up.

Meanwhile, in the vocational class, almost immediately some kid just blurted out and said, “Hey, I know what to do. Just take a chainsaw, and chainsaw that giraffe into chunks. Then weigh the chunks.”

Chainsawing the giraffe is an attitude that a good problem solver should have because you want to be fun, and you also want to be a little bit bad. Breaking rules is a good thing when we’re not talking about actual cruelty to animals here. We’re just talking about thinking outside the box or breaking mathematical rules.

To break the mathematical rules, we need a healthy dose of the 3 C’s.

This is a transcript from the video series Art and Craft of Mathematical Problem Solving. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Solving Problems with the 3 C’s

Concentration, creativity, and confidence are psychological attributes that are important for just about everything, but they’re vital for solving problems. How do we enhance them? All three of them are linked, but confidence is the least important of the three because it’s truly derived from the other two.

As your concentration ability increases, and if your creativity gets stronger, then you’ll naturally become more confident.

Learn more about thinking like a problem solver

Building Concentration

Concentration

To master concentration, you must set aside a quiet time and place for your work. You need to relax. You need to develop good work habits, and you need to find problems to concentrate on that are interesting to you, approachable by you, and addictive. Pretty much, that will do the trick. In order to build up your concentration, you want to build up from level 1, which is a minute or so of concentration, at least to level 3, getting up to an hour.

Collect a stock of back-burner problems. Start cultivating problems that you cannot solve. Make sure they’re interesting and then you’ll think about them. If you can find a problem that’s exciting to you, that annoys you, that sort of gnaws at you, then you’ll think about it. Interesting problems will force you to become a better concentrator.

To master concentration, you must set aside a quiet time and place for your work. Click To Tweet

Solving Problems with Confidence and Creativity

Concentration leads to confidence, which frees you to explore, which facilitates investigation and creativity.

working in a cafe

To build both your confidence and creativity, you need to be disciplined about using those interesting problems. You need to set up a problem-solving routine, some workplace, a lucky pen, and then you should keep to your routine to get your mind in a relaxed state.

Then, occasionally, deliberately break your routine. If you like to work in the morning, work late at night. If you like quiet, go to a noisy café. If you like to work in a restaurant, go sit in a library, etc.

You should also, as a strategy, specifically think about peripheral vision. The peripheral vision strategy is to realize that many problems cannot be solved with direct focus. It’s just like your eyes. Your fovea has very good focus, but it has less sensitivity than the perimeter of your eyes, the periphery of your vision.

Peripheral vision strategy—many problems cannot be solved with direct focus. Click To Tweet

Many problems need to percolate in your unconscious in this way. You need to cultivate a good supply of back burners, and just get in the habit of not solving problems. The more you do this, the more you’ll get into a state of investigative, purposeful contemplation, and the more powerful your mind will get.

Learn more about the psychological aspects of problem solving

Don’t be Afraid to Use Tools

pairing-up-with-gauss

Let’s look at a tool made famous by Carl Gauss. He was a prodigy, and as a teenager, he solved a problem that had been unsolved since Hellenistic times. He found a way to construct a regular heptadecagon, 17-gon, using compass and straightedge. The rest of his career was not much different. What Gauss could do in an afternoon was equivalent to what an ordinary mathematician could do in a lifetime.

When he was 10, he was faced with the problem: How do you find the sum of the numbers 1 + 2 + 3 up to 100? How do you compute this in 1787 when there are no calculators? Well, what little Gauss did was to pair the terms, the beginning term and the end term, (1 + 100); and then the second term and the next to last term, (2 + 99); and then (3 + 98); (4 + 97); and so on down to (50 + 51). Each of those pairs adds up to 101, and there are 50 such pairs. Thus, the sum is 5050, and that’s pretty clever. This is called Gaussian pairing and is an example of a powerful and useful tool.

Learn more about the power of specific tools, or “tricks”, to make a mathematical expression simpler

Wishful Thinking

Wishful thinking is one of your first strategies for this because pretending to solve a problem, even an easier one, keeps you happy. It allows you to keep thinking about solving problems. Even delusion helps – deluding yourself into thinking that you’ve solved a problem actually allows you to solve it later because you can relax and be happy. Making yourself happy and confident, even if it’s through such a transparent thing as delusion, is fine.

A corollary of wishful thinking is a very sensible idea, which I just call the “make it easier” strategy. The idea is completely common sense. If your problem is too hard, just make it easier by removing the hard part. Either make the size smaller or remove an element that makes it hard. For example, if it involves square roots, remove them temporarily.

What you should keep in mind is strategy and tactic is what makes someone a good problem solver, not the tools. Now, if you’ve never seen the Gaussian pairing tool, which Gauss used to sum the numbers from 1 to a 100,  you are undoubtedly impressed. Gaussian pairing are quite clever, but they are tools and tools are just tricks.  These are things that can be acquired. What you should keep in mind is that strategy and tactic are what makes someone a good problem solver, not the tools.

And you should use these new ideas. Any time you see a new, interesting idea, learn it, use it, and make it yours. Ideas are collective human property. They are not private property. Don’t forget that what you’re doing is chainsawing the giraffe. It’s okay to mess around and break some rules.

Learn more about three strategies for achieving a problem-solving breakthrough

Solving Problems with Creative Thinking

Image of Nine-dot-puzzle-solution

Let’s look at a quickie: a problem that requires “think outside the box” thinking.

If you consider the problem of nine dots in a grid and ask how do you join them all by drawing no more than four absolutely straight lines? If you think outside the box , as demonstrated in the diagram, it’s pretty obvious what to do.

As long as you go outside the box, you’re able to get all 9 dots. It’s a fun and challenging problem if you’ve never seen it before.

Thinking outside the box helps you become a good problem solver. Click To Tweet

People may be endowed unequally with confidence, creativity, and power of concentration, but all of these are trainable skills. It’s possible to practice them and improve them, but in order to do so, you will need to see lots of creativity in action and you need lots of open-ended opportunity to experiment.

Learn more about the hidden world of problem solvers

Common Questions About Problem Solving

Q: What are the steps of problem solving?

The seven steps of problem solving are: identify a problem, define goals, brainstorm, consider alternatives, agree on the solution, execute the solution, and evaluate the outcome.

Q: Why are some people good problem solvers?

Good problem solvers generally have less drama in their lives and react less emotionally to difficulties and thus are able to follow the steps of problem-solving more coherently.

Q: How can one become a better problem solver?

Become a better problem solver by stimulating the brain with mathematical problems and games, removing drama from your life, and following the steps of problem solving while allowing for random clues to appear.

Q: Do team leaders need to be good problem solvers?

Solving problems gets better with experience and team leaders must lead by offering solutions and roads to solutions which arise from experience.

This article was updated on 8/30/2019

Keep Reading
Common Core Math Divides Parents, Teachers, Students
The Great Courses Learning Paths—Math
A Reflection on Human Intelligence a la Beef Stew

By User:Marmelad – Copy of File:Ninedots-2.png by Steve Gustafson (aka Smerdis of Tlön), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7385041