My daughter’s 5th grade teacher gives some pretty impossible questions and I don’t think she understands the material she’s teaching.

For example, this question has no context from previous questions and short of using integration or something off the wall contrived, I know of no other method than length * width * height to calculate volume of a rectangular prism.

Edit: My daughter says they haven’t talked about physical methods like pouring water into the rectangular prism to measure the volume. Homework question

I don’t think this is just me; I have a BS in Applied Math, a MS in Physics, I’m working on my PhD and I taught high school math for a couple years.

How and to whom do I tactfully bring up the issues I see? She seems nice so I don’t want her to get a reprimand or anything, I just feel like the kids aren’t getting the opportunity they should be.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have some reason to believe that the answers "pour water into the prism to measure the volume," "submerge the prism in water and measure the displacement," "cut it into 1x1x1 cubes and count them," "weigh it and use the known density of the material to calculate the volume," etc etc etc would be marked wrong? It says "Open Response" on it. $\endgroup$ Nov 21, 2019 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ Sometimes, context matters. What came before this? Too often, the teacher is building on the earlier material, which leads into this. I also suspect there’s more history with the teacher you’re not really sharing. I doubt a 5th grade teacher is consistently offering impossible material. $\endgroup$ Nov 21, 2019 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think you nailed it with cut it into 1x1x1 cubes - I just looked up NC standards: ncpublicschools.org/docs/curriculum/mathematics/scos/current/… and that’s in there. I guess my issue is there’s no math book and no reference to use outside the class so they’re fully reliant on the teacher and handouts and this question is just one of many rather obscure meta level questions. This is the first year she’s not had a book to refer to. $\endgroup$
    – Still.Tony
    Nov 21, 2019 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ The question asks "What is volume?" to start and is labeled "Open Response." Maybe the goal here is to ask children to think and give creative answers in a math class, in which case this is all the sign of an awesome teacher? Why would the 1x1x1 cubes thing be the answer? Why does there even need to be one correct answer? It seems worth considering that you may have found a golden 5th grade math teacher. To try out this idea, I bet you and your child could come up with six more answers to this question, and it could be pretty fun. $\endgroup$ Nov 21, 2019 at 4:08
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    $\begingroup$ The problem here though is that without more context it's hard to answer the question as asked, because we end up focusing on the only information we have (this one question that doesn't look all that offensive on its own). :/ $\endgroup$ Nov 21, 2019 at 4:12

1 Answer 1


There are two questions here.

The easier question is describing volume. There are two separate ways to measure volume. In metric terms, one standard measure would be liters and the other would be cubic meters. They are related in metric: one liter is 1000 cubic centimeters. Both of them (and their "American" counterparts) are extremely common and important to know about.

The other question is how to confront a teacher who isn't really on top of the material. This looks like an example of inquiry-based education, where the students have to think about examples in their life where they measure volume and then think about it to generate their own knowledge instead of passively getting facts from the teacher. I think it's a great technique and one that is rightfully gaining popularity in education. The downside is that some teachers think that you can just hand out a worksheet and kick back while they fill it out. In reality, teachers have to work even harder to engage individual learners to think for themselves if they aren't sure how to engage with a lesson, and probably not all teachers are trained in how to do that.

Certainly, your first approach should be to talk to the teacher. Talking to parents is a positive on our year-end review! You might get a sense from there of how high up the problem goes. Maybe the math department at the school doesn't care, or the entire school, or the entire district, or the entire state. And going to a principal with a solution is definitely better than going to a principal with a problem, if you and the teacher can figure out how to make things better but it requires extra training or resources or whatever.

Good luck!


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