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5 Teaching Mathematics Through Problem Solving

Janet Stramel

Problem Solving

In his book “How to Solve It,” George Pólya (1945) said, “One of the most important tasks of the teacher is to help his students. This task is not quite easy; it demands time, practice, devotion, and sound principles. The student should acquire as much experience of independent work as possible. But if he is left alone with his problem without any help, he may make no progress at all. If the teacher helps too much, nothing is left to the student. The teacher should help, but not too much and not too little, so that the student shall have a reasonable share of the work.” (page 1)

What is a problem  in mathematics? A problem is “any task or activity for which the students have no prescribed or memorized rules or methods, nor is there a perception by students that there is a specific ‘correct’ solution method” (Hiebert, et. al., 1997). Problem solving in mathematics is one of the most important topics to teach; learning to problem solve helps students develop a sense of solving real-life problems and apply mathematics to real world situations. It is also used for a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. Learning “math facts” is not enough; students must also learn how to use these facts to develop their thinking skills.

According to NCTM (2010), the term “problem solving” refers to mathematical tasks that have the potential to provide intellectual challenges for enhancing students’ mathematical understanding and development. When you first hear “problem solving,” what do you think about? Story problems or word problems? Story problems may be limited to and not “problematic” enough. For example, you may ask students to find the area of a rectangle, given the length and width. This type of problem is an exercise in computation and can be completed mindlessly without understanding the concept of area. Worthwhile problems  includes problems that are truly problematic and have the potential to provide contexts for students’ mathematical development.

There are three ways to solve problems: teaching for problem solving, teaching about problem solving, and teaching through problem solving.

Teaching for problem solving begins with learning a skill. For example, students are learning how to multiply a two-digit number by a one-digit number, and the story problems you select are multiplication problems. Be sure when you are teaching for problem solving, you select or develop tasks that can promote the development of mathematical understanding.

Teaching about problem solving begins with suggested strategies to solve a problem. For example, “draw a picture,” “make a table,” etc. You may see posters in teachers’ classrooms of the “Problem Solving Method” such as: 1) Read the problem, 2) Devise a plan, 3) Solve the problem, and 4) Check your work. There is little or no evidence that students’ problem-solving abilities are improved when teaching about problem solving. Students will see a word problem as a separate endeavor and focus on the steps to follow rather than the mathematics. In addition, students will tend to use trial and error instead of focusing on sense making.

Teaching through problem solving  focuses students’ attention on ideas and sense making and develops mathematical practices. Teaching through problem solving also develops a student’s confidence and builds on their strengths. It allows for collaboration among students and engages students in their own learning.

Consider the following worthwhile-problem criteria developed by Lappan and Phillips (1998):

  • The problem has important, useful mathematics embedded in it.
  • The problem requires high-level thinking and problem solving.
  • The problem contributes to the conceptual development of students.
  • The problem creates an opportunity for the teacher to assess what his or her students are learning and where they are experiencing difficulty.
  • The problem can be approached by students in multiple ways using different solution strategies.
  • The problem has various solutions or allows different decisions or positions to be taken and defended.
  • The problem encourages student engagement and discourse.
  • The problem connects to other important mathematical ideas.
  • The problem promotes the skillful use of mathematics.
  • The problem provides an opportunity to practice important skills.

Of course, not every problem will include all of the above. Sometimes, you will choose a problem because your students need an opportunity to practice a certain skill.

Key features of a good mathematics problem includes:

  • It must begin where the students are mathematically.
  • The feature of the problem must be the mathematics that students are to learn.
  • It must require justifications and explanations for both answers and methods of solving.

Needlepoint of cats

Problem solving is not a  neat and orderly process. Think about needlework. On the front side, it is neat and perfect and pretty.

Back of a needlepoint

But look at the b ack.

It is messy and full of knots and loops. Problem solving in mathematics is also like this and we need to help our students be “messy” with problem solving; they need to go through those knots and loops and learn how to solve problems with the teacher’s guidance.

When you teach through problem solving , your students are focused on ideas and sense-making and they develop confidence in mathematics!

Mathematics Tasks and Activities that Promote Teaching through Problem Solving

Teacher teaching a math lesson

Choosing the Right Task

Selecting activities and/or tasks is the most significant decision teachers make that will affect students’ learning. Consider the following questions:

  • Teachers must do the activity first. What is problematic about the activity? What will you need to do BEFORE the activity and AFTER the activity? Additionally, think how your students would do the activity.
  • What mathematical ideas will the activity develop? Are there connections to other related mathematics topics, or other content areas?
  • Can the activity accomplish your learning objective/goals?

teaching through problem solving examples

Low Floor High Ceiling Tasks

By definition, a “ low floor/high ceiling task ” is a mathematical activity where everyone in the group can begin and then work on at their own level of engagement. Low Floor High Ceiling Tasks are activities that everyone can begin and work on based on their own level, and have many possibilities for students to do more challenging mathematics. One gauge of knowing whether an activity is a Low Floor High Ceiling Task is when the work on the problems becomes more important than the answer itself, and leads to rich mathematical discourse [Hover: ways of representing, thinking, talking, agreeing, and disagreeing; the way ideas are exchanged and what the ideas entail; and as being shaped by the tasks in which students engage as well as by the nature of the learning environment].

The strengths of using Low Floor High Ceiling Tasks:

  • Allows students to show what they can do, not what they can’t.
  • Provides differentiation to all students.
  • Promotes a positive classroom environment.
  • Advances a growth mindset in students
  • Aligns with the Standards for Mathematical Practice

Examples of some Low Floor High Ceiling Tasks can be found at the following sites:

  • YouCubed – under grades choose Low Floor High Ceiling
  • NRICH Creating a Low Threshold High Ceiling Classroom
  • Inside Mathematics Problems of the Month

Math in 3-Acts

Math in 3-Acts was developed by Dan Meyer to spark an interest in and engage students in thought-provoking mathematical inquiry. Math in 3-Acts is a whole-group mathematics task consisting of three distinct parts:

Act One is about noticing and wondering. The teacher shares with students an image, video, or other situation that is engaging and perplexing. Students then generate questions about the situation.

In Act Two , the teacher offers some information for the students to use as they find the solutions to the problem.

Act Three is the “reveal.” Students share their thinking as well as their solutions.

“Math in 3 Acts” is a fun way to engage your students, there is a low entry point that gives students confidence, there are multiple paths to a solution, and it encourages students to work in groups to solve the problem. Some examples of Math in 3-Acts can be found at the following websites:

  • Dan Meyer’s Three-Act Math Tasks
  • Graham Fletcher3-Act Tasks ]
  • Math in 3-Acts: Real World Math Problems to Make Math Contextual, Visual and Concrete

Number Talks

Number talks are brief, 5-15 minute discussions that focus on student solutions for a mental math computation problem. Students share their different mental math processes aloud while the teacher records their thinking visually on a chart or board. In addition, students learn from each other’s strategies as they question, critique, or build on the strategies that are shared.. To use a “number talk,” you would include the following steps:

  • The teacher presents a problem for students to solve mentally.
  • Provide adequate “ wait time .”
  • The teacher calls on a students and asks, “What were you thinking?” and “Explain your thinking.”
  • For each student who volunteers to share their strategy, write their thinking on the board. Make sure to accurately record their thinking; do not correct their responses.
  • Invite students to question each other about their strategies, compare and contrast the strategies, and ask for clarification about strategies that are confusing.

“Number Talks” can be used as an introduction, a warm up to a lesson, or an extension. Some examples of Number Talks can be found at the following websites:

  • Inside Mathematics Number Talks
  • Number Talks Build Numerical Reasoning

Light bulb

Saying “This is Easy”

“This is easy.” Three little words that can have a big impact on students. What may be “easy” for one person, may be more “difficult” for someone else. And saying “this is easy” defeats the purpose of a growth mindset classroom, where students are comfortable making mistakes.

When the teacher says, “this is easy,” students may think,

  • “Everyone else understands and I don’t. I can’t do this!”
  • Students may just give up and surrender the mathematics to their classmates.
  • Students may shut down.

Instead, you and your students could say the following:

  • “I think I can do this.”
  • “I have an idea I want to try.”
  • “I’ve seen this kind of problem before.”

Tracy Zager wrote a short article, “This is easy”: The Little Phrase That Causes Big Problems” that can give you more information. Read Tracy Zager’s article here.

Using “Worksheets”

Do you want your students to memorize concepts, or do you want them to understand and apply the mathematics for different situations?

What is a “worksheet” in mathematics? It is a paper and pencil assignment when no other materials are used. A worksheet does not allow your students to use hands-on materials/manipulatives [Hover: physical objects that are used as teaching tools to engage students in the hands-on learning of mathematics]; and worksheets are many times “naked number” with no context. And a worksheet should not be used to enhance a hands-on activity.

Students need time to explore and manipulate materials in order to learn the mathematics concept. Worksheets are just a test of rote memory. Students need to develop those higher-order thinking skills, and worksheets will not allow them to do that.

One productive belief from the NCTM publication, Principles to Action (2014), states, “Students at all grade levels can benefit from the use of physical and virtual manipulative materials to provide visual models of a range of mathematical ideas.”

You may need an “activity sheet,” a “graphic organizer,” etc. as you plan your mathematics activities/lessons, but be sure to include hands-on manipulatives. Using manipulatives can

  • Provide your students a bridge between the concrete and abstract
  • Serve as models that support students’ thinking
  • Provide another representation
  • Support student engagement
  • Give students ownership of their own learning.

Adapted from “ The Top 5 Reasons for Using Manipulatives in the Classroom ”.

any task or activity for which the students have no prescribed or memorized rules or methods, nor is there a perception by students that there is a specific ‘correct’ solution method

should be intriguing and contain a level of challenge that invites speculation and hard work, and directs students to investigate important mathematical ideas and ways of thinking toward the learning

involves teaching a skill so that a student can later solve a story problem

when we teach students how to problem solve

teaching mathematics content through real contexts, problems, situations, and models

a mathematical activity where everyone in the group can begin and then work on at their own level of engagement

20 seconds to 2 minutes for students to make sense of questions

Mathematics Methods for Early Childhood Copyright © 2021 by Janet Stramel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Teaching problem solving.

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Tips and Techniques

Expert vs. novice problem solvers, communicate.

  • Have students  identify specific problems, difficulties, or confusions . Don’t waste time working through problems that students already understand.
  • If students are unable to articulate their concerns, determine where they are having trouble by  asking them to identify the specific concepts or principles associated with the problem.
  • In a one-on-one tutoring session, ask the student to  work his/her problem out loud . This slows down the thinking process, making it more accurate and allowing you to access understanding.
  • When working with larger groups you can ask students to provide a written “two-column solution.” Have students write up their solution to a problem by putting all their calculations in one column and all of their reasoning (in complete sentences) in the other column. This helps them to think critically about their own problem solving and helps you to more easily identify where they may be having problems. Two-Column Solution (Math) Two-Column Solution (Physics)

Encourage Independence

  • Model the problem solving process rather than just giving students the answer. As you work through the problem, consider how a novice might struggle with the concepts and make your thinking clear
  • Have students work through problems on their own. Ask directing questions or give helpful suggestions, but  provide only minimal assistance and only when needed to overcome obstacles.
  • Don’t fear  group work ! Students can frequently help each other, and talking about a problem helps them think more critically about the steps needed to solve the problem. Additionally, group work helps students realize that problems often have multiple solution strategies, some that might be more effective than others

Be sensitive

  • Frequently, when working problems, students are unsure of themselves. This lack of confidence may hamper their learning. It is important to recognize this when students come to us for help, and to give each student some feeling of mastery. Do this by providing  positive reinforcement to let students know when they have mastered a new concept or skill.

Encourage Thoroughness and Patience

  • Try to communicate that  the process is more important than the answer so that the student learns that it is OK to not have an instant solution. This is learned through your acceptance of his/her pace of doing things, through your refusal to let anxiety pressure you into giving the right answer, and through your example of problem solving through a step-by step process.

Experts (teachers) in a particular field are often so fluent in solving problems from that field that they can find it difficult to articulate the problem solving principles and strategies they use to novices (students) in their field because these principles and strategies are second nature to the expert. To teach students problem solving skills,  a teacher should be aware of principles and strategies of good problem solving in his or her discipline .

The mathematician George Polya captured the problem solving principles and strategies he used in his discipline in the book  How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method (Princeton University Press, 1957). The book includes  a summary of Polya’s problem solving heuristic as well as advice on the teaching of problem solving.

teaching through problem solving examples

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Teaching problem solving: Let students get ‘stuck’ and ‘unstuck’

Subscribe to the center for universal education bulletin, kate mills and km kate mills literacy interventionist - red bank primary school helyn kim helyn kim former brookings expert @helyn_kim.

October 31, 2017

This is the second in a six-part  blog series  on  teaching 21st century skills , including  problem solving ,  metacognition , critical thinking , and collaboration , in classrooms.

In the real world, students encounter problems that are complex, not well defined, and lack a clear solution and approach. They need to be able to identify and apply different strategies to solve these problems. However, problem solving skills do not necessarily develop naturally; they need to be explicitly taught in a way that can be transferred across multiple settings and contexts.

Here’s what Kate Mills, who taught 4 th grade for 10 years at Knollwood School in New Jersey and is now a Literacy Interventionist at Red Bank Primary School, has to say about creating a classroom culture of problem solvers:

Helping my students grow to be people who will be successful outside of the classroom is equally as important as teaching the curriculum. From the first day of school, I intentionally choose language and activities that help to create a classroom culture of problem solvers. I want to produce students who are able to think about achieving a particular goal and manage their mental processes . This is known as metacognition , and research shows that metacognitive skills help students become better problem solvers.

I begin by “normalizing trouble” in the classroom. Peter H. Johnston teaches the importance of normalizing struggle , of naming it, acknowledging it, and calling it what it is: a sign that we’re growing. The goal is for the students to accept challenge and failure as a chance to grow and do better.

I look for every chance to share problems and highlight how the students— not the teachers— worked through those problems. There is, of course, coaching along the way. For example, a science class that is arguing over whose turn it is to build a vehicle will most likely need a teacher to help them find a way to the balance the work in an equitable way. Afterwards, I make it a point to turn it back to the class and say, “Do you see how you …” By naming what it is they did to solve the problem , students can be more independent and productive as they apply and adapt their thinking when engaging in future complex tasks.

After a few weeks, most of the class understands that the teachers aren’t there to solve problems for the students, but to support them in solving the problems themselves. With that important part of our classroom culture established, we can move to focusing on the strategies that students might need.

Here’s one way I do this in the classroom:

I show the broken escalator video to the class. Since my students are fourth graders, they think it’s hilarious and immediately start exclaiming, “Just get off! Walk!”

When the video is over, I say, “Many of us, probably all of us, are like the man in the video yelling for help when we get stuck. When we get stuck, we stop and immediately say ‘Help!’ instead of embracing the challenge and trying new ways to work through it.” I often introduce this lesson during math class, but it can apply to any area of our lives, and I can refer to the experience and conversation we had during any part of our day.

Research shows that just because students know the strategies does not mean they will engage in the appropriate strategies. Therefore, I try to provide opportunities where students can explicitly practice learning how, when, and why to use which strategies effectively  so that they can become self-directed learners.

For example, I give students a math problem that will make many of them feel “stuck”. I will say, “Your job is to get yourselves stuck—or to allow yourselves to get stuck on this problem—and then work through it, being mindful of how you’re getting yourselves unstuck.” As students work, I check-in to help them name their process: “How did you get yourself unstuck?” or “What was your first step? What are you doing now? What might you try next?” As students talk about their process, I’ll add to a list of strategies that students are using and, if they are struggling, help students name a specific process. For instance, if a student says he wrote the information from the math problem down and points to a chart, I will say: “Oh that’s interesting. You pulled the important information from the problem out and organized it into a chart.” In this way, I am giving him the language to match what he did, so that he now has a strategy he could use in other times of struggle.

The charts grow with us over time and are something that we refer to when students are stuck or struggling. They become a resource for students and a way for them to talk about their process when they are reflecting on and monitoring what did or did not work.

For me, as a teacher, it is important that I create a classroom environment in which students are problem solvers. This helps tie struggles to strategies so that the students will not only see value in working harder but in working smarter by trying new and different strategies and revising their process. In doing so, they will more successful the next time around.

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Teaching Through Problem-solving

An elementary-age male student points while his female teacher stands beside him and observes

  • TTP in Action

What is Teaching Through Problem-Solving?

In Teaching Through Problem-solving (TTP), students learn new mathematics by solving problems. Students grapple with a novel problem, present and discuss solution strategies, and together build the next concept or procedure in the mathematics curriculum.

Teaching Through Problem-solving is widespread in Japan, where students solve problems before a solution method or procedure is taught. In contrast, U.S. students spend most of their time doing exercises– completing problems for which a solution method has already been taught.

Why Teaching Through Problem-Solving?

As students build their mathematical knowledge, they also:

  • Learn to reason mathematically, using prior knowledge to build new ideas
  • See the power of their explanations and carefully written work to spark insights for themselves and their classmates
  • Expect mathematics to make sense
  • Enjoy solving unfamiliar problems
  • Experience mathematical discoveries that naturally deepen their perseverance

Phases of a TTP Lesson

Teaching Through Problem-solving flows through four phases as students 1. Grasp the problem, 2. Try to solve the problem independently, 3. Present and discuss their work (selected strategies), and 4. Summarize and reflect.

Click on the arrows below to find out what students and teachers do during each phase and to see video examples.

  • 1. Grasp the Problem
  • 2. Try to Solve
  • 3. Present & Discuss
  • 4. Summarize & Reflect
  • New Learning

WHAT STUDENTS DO

  • Understand the problem and develop interest in solving it.
  • Consider what they know that might help them solve the problem.

WHAT TEACHERS DO

  • Show several student journal reflections from the prior lesson.
  • Pose a problem that students do not yet know how to solve.
  • Interest students in the problem and in thinking about their own related knowledge.
  • Independently try to solve the problem.
  • Do not simply following the teacher’s solution example.
  • Allow classmates to provide input after some independent thinking time.
  • Circulate, using seating chart to note each student’s solution approach.
  • Identify work to be presented and discussed at board.
  • Ask individual questions to spark more thinking if some students finish quickly or don’t get started.
  • Present and explain solution ideas at the board, are questioned by classmates and teacher. (2-3 students per lesson)
  • Actively make sense of the presented work and draw out key mathematical points. (All students)
  • Strategically select and sequence student presentations of work at the board, to build the new mathematics. (Incorrect approaches may be included.)
  • Monitor student discussion: Are all students noticing the important mathematical ideas?
  • Add teacher moves (questions, turn-and-talk, votes) as needed to build important mathematics.
  • Consider what they learned and share their thoughts with class, to help formulate class summary of learning. Copy summary into journal.
  • Write journal reflection on their own learning from the lesson.
  • Write on the board a brief summary of what the class learned during the lesson, using student ideas and words where possible.
  • Ask students to write in their journals about what they learned during the lesson.

How Do Teachers Support Problem-solving?

Although students do much of the talking and questioning in a TTP lesson, teachers play a crucial role. The widely-known 5 Practices for Orchestrating Mathematical Discussions were based in part on TTP . Teachers study the curriculum, anticipate student thinking, and select and sequence the student presentations that allow the class to build the new mathematics. Classroom routines for presentation and discussion of student work, board organization, and reflective mathematics journals work together to allow students to do the mathematical heavy lifting. To learn more about journals, board work, and discussion in TTP, as well as see other TTP resources and examples of TTP in action, click on the respective tabs near the top of this page.

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teaching through problem solving examples

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  • What is Lesson Study?
  • Why Lesson Study?
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teaching through problem solving examples

Mathematics for Teaching

This site is NOT about making mathematics easy because it isn't. It is about making it make sense because it does.

Teaching through Problem Solving

Problem solving is not only the reason for teaching and learning mathematics. It is also the means for learning it. In the words of Hiebert et al:

Students should be allowed to make the subject problematic. … Allowing the subject to be problematic means allowing students to wonder why things are, to inquire, to search for solutions, and to resolve incongruities. It means that both curriculum and instruction should begin with problems, dilemmas, and questions for students. (Hiebert, et al, 1996, p. 12)

teaching through problem solving examples

For years now, UP NISMED in-service training programs for teachers have organized mathematics lessons for teachers using the strategy we call Teaching through Problem Solving (TtPS). This teaching strategy had also been tried by teachers in their classes and the results far outweighed the disadvantages anticipated by the teachers.

Teaching through problem solving provides context for reviewing previously learned concepts and linking it to the new concepts to be learned. It provides context for students to experience working with the new concepts before they are formally defined and manipulated procedurally, thus making definitions and procedures meaningful to them.

What are the characteristics of a TtPS?

  • main learning activity is problem solving
  • concepts are learned in the context of solving a problem
  • students think about math ideas without having the ideas pre-explained
  • students solve problems without the teacher showing a solution to a similar problem first

What is the typical lesson sequence organized around TtPS?

  • An which can be solved in many ways is posed to the class.
  • Students initially work on the problem on their own then join a group to share their solutions and find other ways of solving the problem. (Role of teacher is to encourage pupils to try many possible solutions with minimum hints)
  • Students studies/evaluates solutions. (Teacher ask learners questions like “Which solutions do you like most? Why?”)
  • Teacher asks questions to help students make connections among concepts
  • Teacher/students extend the problem.

What are the theoretical underpinnings of TtPS strategy?

  • Constructivism
  • Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development ( ZPD )

Click here for sample lesson using Teaching through Problem Solving to teach the tangent ratio/function .

The best resource for improving one’s problem solving skills is still these books by George Polya.

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14 thoughts on “ Teaching through Problem Solving ”

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A fun addition to this, I have found, is to get the class to solve a mastermind game as a group. Cracking the code involves a reasonable amount of logical thinking and playing it as a group encourages people to learn from each other.

  • Pingback: Misunderstanding of Understanding by Design | Keeping Mathematics Simple
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Phillips Exeter Academy has their whole math curriculum designed around a problem-based system. I have adopted/adapted this for my calculus and geometry classes.

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Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Many instructors design opportunities for students to solve “problems”. But are their students solving true problems or merely participating in practice exercises? The former stresses critical thinking and decision­ making skills whereas the latter requires only the application of previously learned procedures.

Problem solving is often broadly defined as "the ability to understand the environment, identify complex problems, review related information to develop, evaluate strategies and implement solutions to build the desired outcome" (Fissore, C. et al, 2021). True problem solving is the process of applying a method – not known in advance – to a problem that is subject to a specific set of conditions and that the problem solver has not seen before, in order to obtain a satisfactory solution.

Below you will find some basic principles for teaching problem solving and one model to implement in your classroom teaching.

Principles for teaching problem solving

  • Model a useful problem-solving method . Problem solving can be difficult and sometimes tedious. Show students how to be patient and persistent, and how to follow a structured method, such as Woods’ model described below. Articulate your method as you use it so students see the connections.
  • Teach within a specific context . Teach problem-solving skills in the context in which they will be used by students (e.g., mole fraction calculations in a chemistry course). Use real-life problems in explanations, examples, and exams. Do not teach problem solving as an independent, abstract skill.
  • Help students understand the problem . In order to solve problems, students need to define the end goal. This step is crucial to successful learning of problem-solving skills. If you succeed at helping students answer the questions “what?” and “why?”, finding the answer to “how?” will be easier.
  • Take enough time . When planning a lecture/tutorial, budget enough time for: understanding the problem and defining the goal (both individually and as a class); dealing with questions from you and your students; making, finding, and fixing mistakes; and solving entire problems in a single session.
  • Ask questions and make suggestions . Ask students to predict “what would happen if …” or explain why something happened. This will help them to develop analytical and deductive thinking skills. Also, ask questions and make suggestions about strategies to encourage students to reflect on the problem-solving strategies that they use.
  • Link errors to misconceptions . Use errors as evidence of misconceptions, not carelessness or random guessing. Make an effort to isolate the misconception and correct it, then teach students to do this by themselves. We can all learn from mistakes.

Woods’ problem-solving model

Define the problem.

  • The system . Have students identify the system under study (e.g., a metal bridge subject to certain forces) by interpreting the information provided in the problem statement. Drawing a diagram is a great way to do this.
  • Known(s) and concepts . List what is known about the problem, and identify the knowledge needed to understand (and eventually) solve it.
  • Unknown(s) . Once you have a list of knowns, identifying the unknown(s) becomes simpler. One unknown is generally the answer to the problem, but there may be other unknowns. Be sure that students understand what they are expected to find.
  • Units and symbols . One key aspect in problem solving is teaching students how to select, interpret, and use units and symbols. Emphasize the use of units whenever applicable. Develop a habit of using appropriate units and symbols yourself at all times.
  • Constraints . All problems have some stated or implied constraints. Teach students to look for the words "only", "must", "neglect", or "assume" to help identify the constraints.
  • Criteria for success . Help students consider, from the beginning, what a logical type of answer would be. What characteristics will it possess? For example, a quantitative problem will require an answer in some form of numerical units (e.g., $/kg product, square cm, etc.) while an optimization problem requires an answer in the form of either a numerical maximum or minimum.

Think about it

  • “Let it simmer”.  Use this stage to ponder the problem. Ideally, students will develop a mental image of the problem at hand during this stage.
  • Identify specific pieces of knowledge . Students need to determine by themselves the required background knowledge from illustrations, examples and problems covered in the course.
  • Collect information . Encourage students to collect pertinent information such as conversion factors, constants, and tables needed to solve the problem.

Plan a solution

  • Consider possible strategies . Often, the type of solution will be determined by the type of problem. Some common problem-solving strategies are: compute; simplify; use an equation; make a model, diagram, table, or chart; or work backwards.
  • Choose the best strategy . Help students to choose the best strategy by reminding them again what they are required to find or calculate.

Carry out the plan

  • Be patient . Most problems are not solved quickly or on the first attempt. In other cases, executing the solution may be the easiest step.
  • Be persistent . If a plan does not work immediately, do not let students get discouraged. Encourage them to try a different strategy and keep trying.

Encourage students to reflect. Once a solution has been reached, students should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Does the answer make sense?
  • Does it fit with the criteria established in step 1?
  • Did I answer the question(s)?
  • What did I learn by doing this?
  • Could I have done the problem another way?

If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the  CTE Support  page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 

  • Fissore, C., Marchisio, M., Roman, F., & Sacchet, M. (2021). Development of problem solving skills with Maple in higher education. In: Corless, R.M., Gerhard, J., Kotsireas, I.S. (eds) Maple in Mathematics Education and Research. MC 2020. Communications in Computer and Information Science, vol 1414. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-81698-8_15
  • Foshay, R., & Kirkley, J. (1998). Principles for Teaching Problem Solving. TRO Learning Inc., Edina MN.  (PDF) Principles for Teaching Problem Solving (researchgate.net)
  • Hayes, J.R. (1989). The Complete Problem Solver. 2nd Edition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Woods, D.R., Wright, J.D., Hoffman, T.W., Swartman, R.K., Doig, I.D. (1975). Teaching Problem solving Skills.
  • Engineering Education. Vol 1, No. 1. p. 238. Washington, DC: The American Society for Engineering Education.

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Making Sense of Mathematics

Making Sense of Mathematics

Teaching Mathematics through Problem Solving- An Upside-Down Approach

By inviting children to solve problems in their own ways, we are initiating them into the community of mathematicians who engage in structuring and modeling their “lived worlds” mathematically.

 Fosnot and Jacob, 2007

Teaching mathematics through problem solving requires you to think about the types of tasks you pose to students, how you facilitate discourse in your classroom, and how you support students use of a variety of representations as tools for problem solving, reasoning, and communication.

This is a different approach from “do-as-I-show-you” approach where the teacher shows all the mathematics, demonstrates strategies to solve a problem, and then students just have to practice that exact same skill/strategy, perhaps using a similar problem.

Teaching mathematics through problem solving means that students solve problems to learn new mathematics through real contexts, problems, situations, and strategies and models that allow them to build concept and make connections on their own.

The main difference between the traditional approach “I-do-you-do” and teaching through problem solving, is that the problem is presented at the beginning of the lesson, and the skills, strategies and ideas emerge when students are working on the problem. The teacher listens to students’ responses and examine their work, determining the moment to extend students’ thinking and providing targeted feedback.

Here are the 4 essential moves in a math lesson using a student-centered approach or problem-solving approach:

  • Number Talk (5-8 min) (Connection)

The mini-lesson starts with a Number Talk. The main purpose of a Number Talk is:

*to build number sense, and 

*to provide opportunities for students to explain their thinking and respond to the mathematical thinking of others.

teaching through problem solving examples

Please refer to the document Int§roducing Number Talks . Or watch this video with Sherry Parrish to gain understanding about how Number Talks can build fluency with your students.

Here are some videos of Number Talks so you can observe some of the main teaching moves.

The role of the teacher during a number talk is crucial. He/she needs to listen carefully to the way student is explaining his/her reasoning, then use a visual representation of what the student said. Other students also share their strategies, and the teacher represents those strategies as well. Students then can visualize a variety of strategies to solve a problem. They learn how to use numbers flexibly, there is not just one way to solve a problem. When students have a variety if strategies in their math tool box, they can solve any problem, they can make connections with mathematical concepts.

teaching through problem solving examples

There are a variety of resources that can be used for Math Talks. Note : the main difference between Number Talks and Math Talks, is that one allows students to use numbers flexibly leading them to fluency, develop number sense, and opportunities to communicate and reason with mathematics; the other allows for communicating and reasoning, building arguments to critique the reasoning of others, the use of logical thinking, and the ability to recognize different attributes to shapes and other figures and make sense of the mathematics involved.

  • 2. Using problems to teach (5-8 min) Mini Lesson

teaching through problem solving examples

Problems that can serve as effective tasks or activities for students to solve have common features. Use the following points as a guide to assess if the problem/task has the potential to be a genuine problem:

*Problem should be appropriate to their current understanding, and yet still find it challenging and interesting.

*The main focus of the problem should allow students to do the mathematics they need to learn, the emphasis should be on making sense of the problem, and developing the understanding of the mathematics. Any context should not overshadow the mathematics to be learned.

*Problems must require justification, students explain why their solution makes sense. It is not enough when the teacher tells them their answer is correct.

*Ideally, a problem/task should have multiple entries. For example “find 3 factors whose product is 108”, instead of just “multiplying 3 numbers. “

The most important part of the mini-lesson is to avoid teaching tricks or shortcuts, or plain algorithms. Our goal is always to help guide students to understand why the math works (conceptual understanding). And most importantly how different mathematical concepts/ideas are connected! “Math is a connected subject”  Jo Boaler’s video

“Students can learn mathematics through exploring and solving contextual and mathematical problems vs. students can learn to apply mathematics only after they have mastered the basic skills.” By Steve Leinwand author of Principles to Action .

  • 3. Active Engagement (20-30 min)

teaching through problem solving examples

This is the opportunity for students to work with partners or independently on the problem, making connections of what they know, and trying to use the strategy that makes sense to them. Always making sure to represent the problem with a visual representation. It can be any model that helps student understand what the problem is about.

The job of the teacher during this time, is to walk around asking questions to students to guide them in the right direction, but without telling too much. Allowing students to come up with their own solutions and justifications.

  • Teacher can clarify any questions around the problem, not the solution.
  • Teacher emphasizes reasoning to make sense of the problem/task.
  • Teacher encourages student-student dialogue to help build a sense of self.

Some lessons will include a rich task, or a project based learning, or a number problem (find 3 numbers whose product is 108). There are a variety of learning target tasks to choose from, for each grade level on the Assessment Live Binders website created by Erma Anderson and Project AERO.

Again, keep in mind that some lessons will follow a different structure depending on the learning target for that day. Regardless of instructional design, the teacher should not be doing the thinking, reasoning, and connection building; it must be the students who are engaged in these activities

  • 4. Share (8-12 min) (Link)

teaching through problem solving examples

The most crucial part of the lesson is here. This is where the teaching/learning happens, not only learning from teacher, but learning from peers reaching their unique “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978).

We bring back our students to share how they solved their problem. Sometimes they share with a partner first, to make sure they are using the right vocabulary, and to make sure they make sense of their answer. Then a few of them can share with the rest of the class. But sharing with a partner first is helpful so everyone has the opportunity to share.

“Talk to each other and the teacher about ideas – Why did I choose this method? Does it work in other cases? How is the method similar or different to methods other people used?” Jo Boaler’s article “How Students Should Be Taught Mathematics.”

Students make sense of their solution. The teacher listens and makes connections between different strategies that students are sharing. Teacher paraphrases the strategy student described, perhaps linking it with an efficient strategy.

teaching through problem solving examples

“It is a misperception that student-centered classrooms don’t include any lecturing. At times it’s essential the teacher share his or her expertise with the larger group. Students could drive the discussion and the teacher guides and facilitates the learning.” Trevor MacKenzie

If the target for today’s lesson was to introduce the use a number line, for example, this is where the teacher will share that strategy as another possible way to solve today’s problem!

This could also be a good time for any formative assessment, using See Saw, using exit slips, or any kind of evidence of what they learned today.

References.

“Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics” Table 2.1 page 26 , Van de Walle, Karp, Lovin, Bay-Williams

“Number Talks” , Sherry Parrish

“How Students Should be Taught Mathematics: Reflections from Research and Practice” Jo Boaler

“Erma Anderson, Project AERO Assessments live binders

“Principles to Action” , Steve Leinwand

“ Turning Teaching Upside Down “, by Cathy Seeley

“Four Inquiry Qualities At The Heart of Student-Centered Teaching”

By Trevor MacKenzie

“The Zone of Proximal Development” Vygotsky, 1978

*** Here is a link to my favorite places to plan Math padlet, you will find a variety of resources, videos, articles, etc. By Caty Romero

***One more padlet for many resources to plan, teach, and assess mathematics that make sense: Making Sense of Mathematics Padlet.

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Published by Caty Romero - Math Specialist

Passionate about learning and making sense of mathematics. Teacher, Math Learning Specialist, K-8 Math Consultant, and Instructional Coach. Student-Centered-Learning is my approach! Contact me at [email protected] or follow me on Twitter @catyrmath View all posts by Caty Romero - Math Specialist

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  • Demonstrating Moves Live
  • Raw Clips Library
  • Facilitation Guide

Teaching Through Problems

Lecturing interactively and facilitating discussions may be the primary modalities for instruction, but they are certainly not the only ones. Teaching through problems is increasingly practiced on college campuses and in secondary classrooms. These classrooms engage students in relevant, discipline-specific puzzles, frequently shifting instructors to the periphery as students collaborate to realistically apply textbook concepts and reach new understandings.

Teaching through problems videos are organized into five submodules according to the specific learning exercise employed: Case-Based Collaborative Learning (CBCL), Case Teaching, Simulations, Project-Based Learning, and Team-Based Learning. Supplemented by classroom footage and student testimonials, featured faculty share strategies and philosophies for designing, facilitating, and helping students make meaning from immersive, hands-on learning activities.

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Case-Based Collaborative Learning

Learn how to structure, craft, and facilitate cases for students’ collaborative learning

Case Teaching icon

Case Teaching

Learn how to plan, facilitate, and manage student-driven case discussions

Simulations icon

Simulations

Learn how to design, manage, and debrief complex, immersive simulations for students

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Project-Based Learning

Learn how to design and facilitate authentic and challenging projects for students

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Team-Based Learning

Learn how to plan and facilitate teams that enable students’ collaborative learning

Our goal with cases is to have students come in and do the hard part of learning in the classroom, which is the application, the thinking, the wrestling with the material.

- Barbara Cockrill

My approach when I stay with a student, is never to try and trick the student...I stay with the student because I'm genuinely interested in what the students have to say. And I want to make sure that we all as a group fully understand their reasoning.

- Julie Battilana

The challenge of this kind of teaching and the fun part for me is that it's largely unscripted. We know the goals and objectives for the session...but we don't know exactly what the groups are going to come up with for hypotheses. So managing that conversation is a little challenging, but it's fun because no two sessions are exactly the same.

- Richard Schwartzstein

Even before playing, I'm trying to get them to develop an anticipatory mindset. Like an expert or grand master chess player, they can start to think in twofers -- one, two moves at a time -- and at the same time, anticipate questions from other parties at the table.

- Brian Mandell

I thought it'd be nice if I could somehow return to my students the ownership of learning, so that they're not learning because I tell them it's good for them but because they actually want to.

- Eric Mazur

Featured Faculty

teaching through problem solving examples

Julie Battilana

Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration (Harvard Business School), Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation (Harvard Kennedy School)

STUDENT GROUP

Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School

Power and Influence

COURSE DETAILS

Fall 2018, 85 students, second year course

Barbard Cockrill

Barbara Cockrill

Harold Amos Academy Associate Professor of Medicine

Harvard Medical School

Homeostasis I

Spring 2018, 40 students, first-year requisite

Brian Mandell

Brian Mandell

Mohamed Kamal Senior Lecturer in Negotiation and Public Policy

Harvard Kennedy School

Advanced Workshop in Multiparty Negotiation and Conflict Resolution

January Term, 2019; 60 students

Eric Mazur

Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics

Undergraduate

School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Physics as a Foundation for Science and Engineering

Spring, 2019; 60 students

teaching through problem solving examples

Richard Schwartzstein

Ellen and Melvin Gordon Professor of Medicine and Medical Education

  • Our Mission

6 Tips for Teaching Math Problem-Solving Skills

Solving word problems is tougher than computing with numbers, but elementary teachers can guide students to do the deep thinking involved.

Photo of elementary school teacher with students

A growing concern with students is the ability to problem-solve, especially with complex, multistep problems. Data shows that students struggle more when solving word problems than they do with computation , and so problem-solving should be considered separately from computation. Why?

Consider this. When we’re on the way to a new destination and we plug in our location to a map on our phone, it tells us what lane to be in and takes us around any detours or collisions, sometimes even buzzing our watch to remind us to turn. When I experience this as a driver, I don’t have to do the thinking. I can think about what I’m going to cook for dinner, not paying much attention to my surroundings other than to follow those directions. If I were to be asked to go there again, I wouldn’t be able to remember, and I would again seek help.

If we can switch to giving students strategies that require them to think instead of giving them too much support throughout the journey to the answer, we may be able to give them the ability to learn the skills to read a map and have several ways to get there.

Here are six ways we can start letting students do this thinking so that they can go through rigorous problem-solving again and again, paving their own way to the solution. 

1. Link problem-solving to reading

When we can remind students that they already have many comprehension skills and strategies they can easily use in math problem-solving, it can ease the anxiety surrounding the math problem. For example, providing them with strategies to practice, such as visualizing, acting out the problem with math tools like counters or base 10 blocks, drawing a quick sketch of the problem, retelling the story in their own words, etc., can really help them to utilize the skills they already have to make the task less daunting.

We can break these skills into specific short lessons so students have a bank of strategies to try on their own. Here's an example of an anchor chart that they can use for visualizing . Breaking up comprehension into specific skills can increase student independence and help teachers to be much more targeted in their problem-solving instruction. This allows students to build confidence and break down the barriers between reading and math to see they already have so many strengths that are transferable to all problems.

2. Avoid boxing students into choosing a specific operation

It can be so tempting to tell students to look for certain words that might mean a certain operation. This might even be thoroughly successful in kindergarten and first grade, but just like when our map tells us where to go, that limits students from becoming deep thinkers. It also expires once they get into the upper grades, where those words could be in a problem multiple times, creating more confusion when students are trying to follow a rule that may not exist in every problem.

We can encourage a variety of ways to solve problems instead of choosing the operation first. In first grade, a problem might say, “Joceline has 13 stuffed animals and Jordan has 17. How many more does Jordan have?” Some students might choose to subtract, but a lot of students might just count to find the amount in between. If we tell them that “how many more” means to subtract, we’re taking the thinking out of the problem altogether, allowing them to go on autopilot without truly solving the problem or using their comprehension skills to visualize it. 

3. Revisit ‘representation’

The word “representation” can be misleading. It seems like something to do after the process of solving. When students think they have to go straight to solving, they may not realize that they need a step in between to be able to support their understanding of what’s actually happening in the problem first.

Using an anchor chart like one of these ( lower grade , upper grade ) can help students to choose a representation that most closely matches what they’re visualizing in their mind. Once they sketch it out, it can give them a clearer picture of different ways they could solve the problem.

Think about this problem: “Varush went on a trip with his family to his grandmother’s house. It was 710 miles away. On the way there, three people took turns driving. His mom drove 214 miles. His dad drove 358 miles. His older sister drove the rest. How many miles did his sister drive?”

If we were to show this student the anchor chart, they would probably choose a number line or a strip diagram to help them understand what’s happening.

If we tell students they must always draw base 10 blocks in a place value chart, that doesn’t necessarily match the concept of this problem. When we ask students to match our way of thinking, we rob them of critical thinking practice and sometimes confuse them in the process. 

4. Give time to process

Sometimes as educators, we can feel rushed to get to everyone and everything that’s required. When solving a complex problem, students need time to just sit with a problem and wrestle with it, maybe even leaving it and coming back to it after a period of time.

This might mean we need to give them fewer problems but go deeper with those problems we give them. We can also speed up processing time when we allow for collaboration and talk time with peers on problem-solving tasks. 

5. Ask questions that let Students do the thinking

Questions or prompts during problem-solving should be very open-ended to promote thinking. Telling a student to reread the problem or to think about what tools or resources would help them solve it is a way to get them to try something new but not take over their thinking.

These skills are also transferable across content, and students will be reminded, “Good readers and mathematicians reread.” 

6. Spiral concepts so students frequently use problem-solving skills

When students don’t have to switch gears in between concepts, they’re not truly using deep problem-solving skills. They already kind of know what operation it might be or that it’s something they have at the forefront of their mind from recent learning. Being intentional within their learning stations and assessments about having a variety of rigorous problem-solving skills will refine their critical thinking abilities while building more and more resilience throughout the school year as they retain content learning in the process. 

Problem-solving skills are so abstract, and it can be tough to pinpoint exactly what students need. Sometimes we have to go slow to go fast. Slowing down and helping students have tools when they get stuck and enabling them to be critical thinkers will prepare them for life and allow them multiple ways to get to their own destination.

Center for Teaching Innovation

Resource library.

  • Establishing Community Agreements and Classroom Norms
  • Sample group work rubric
  • Problem-Based Learning Clearinghouse of Activities, University of Delaware

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning  (PBL) is a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem. This problem is what drives the motivation and the learning. 

Why Use Problem-Based Learning?

Nilson (2010) lists the following learning outcomes that are associated with PBL. A well-designed PBL project provides students with the opportunity to develop skills related to:

  • Working in teams.
  • Managing projects and holding leadership roles.
  • Oral and written communication.
  • Self-awareness and evaluation of group processes.
  • Working independently.
  • Critical thinking and analysis.
  • Explaining concepts.
  • Self-directed learning.
  • Applying course content to real-world examples.
  • Researching and information literacy.
  • Problem solving across disciplines.

Considerations for Using Problem-Based Learning

Rather than teaching relevant material and subsequently having students apply the knowledge to solve problems, the problem is presented first. PBL assignments can be short, or they can be more involved and take a whole semester. PBL is often group-oriented, so it is beneficial to set aside classroom time to prepare students to   work in groups  and to allow them to engage in their PBL project.

Students generally must:

  • Examine and define the problem.
  • Explore what they already know about underlying issues related to it.
  • Determine what they need to learn and where they can acquire the information and tools necessary to solve the problem.
  • Evaluate possible ways to solve the problem.
  • Solve the problem.
  • Report on their findings.

Getting Started with Problem-Based Learning

  • Articulate the learning outcomes of the project. What do you want students to know or be able to do as a result of participating in the assignment?
  • Create the problem. Ideally, this will be a real-world situation that resembles something students may encounter in their future careers or lives. Cases are often the basis of PBL activities. Previously developed PBL activities can be found online through the University of Delaware’s PBL Clearinghouse of Activities .
  • Establish ground rules at the beginning to prepare students to work effectively in groups.
  • Introduce students to group processes and do some warm up exercises to allow them to practice assessing both their own work and that of their peers.
  • Consider having students take on different roles or divide up the work up amongst themselves. Alternatively, the project might require students to assume various perspectives, such as those of government officials, local business owners, etc.
  • Establish how you will evaluate and assess the assignment. Consider making the self and peer assessments a part of the assignment grade.

Nilson, L. B. (2010).  Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors  (2nd ed.).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

teaching through problem solving examples

Teaching Problem Solving in Math

  • Freebies , Math , Planning

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

Every year my students can be fantastic at math…until they start to see math with words. For some reason, once math gets translated into reading, even my best readers start to panic. There is just something about word problems, or problem-solving, that causes children to think they don’t know how to complete them.

Every year in math, I start off by teaching my students problem-solving skills and strategies. Every year they moan and groan that they know them. Every year – paragraph one above. It was a vicious cycle. I needed something new.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

I put together a problem-solving unit that would focus a bit more on strategies and steps in hopes that that would create problem-solving stars.

The Problem Solving Strategies

First, I wanted to make sure my students all learned the different strategies to solve problems, such as guess-and-check, using visuals (draw a picture, act it out, and modeling it), working backward, and organizational methods (tables, charts, and lists). In the past, I had used worksheet pages that would introduce one and provide the students with plenty of problems practicing that one strategy. I did like that because students could focus more on practicing the strategy itself, but I also wanted students to know when to use it, too, so I made sure they had both to practice.

I provided students with plenty of practice of the strategies, such as in this guess-and-check game.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

There’s also this visuals strategy wheel practice.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

I also provided them with paper dolls and a variety of clothing to create an organized list to determine just how many outfits their “friend” would have.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

Then, as I said above, we practiced in a variety of ways to make sure we knew exactly when to use them. I really wanted to make sure they had this down!

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

Anyway, after I knew they had down the various strategies and when to use them, then we went into the actual problem-solving steps.

The Problem Solving Steps

I wanted students to understand that when they see a story problem, it isn’t scary. Really, it’s just the equation written out in words in a real-life situation. Then, I provided them with the “keys to success.”

S tep 1 – Understand the Problem.   To help students understand the problem, I provided them with sample problems, and together we did five important things:

  • read the problem carefully
  • restated the problem in our own words
  • crossed out unimportant information
  • circled any important information
  • stated the goal or question to be solved

We did this over and over with example problems.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

Once I felt the students had it down, we practiced it in a game of problem-solving relay. Students raced one another to see how quickly they could get down to the nitty-gritty of the word problems. We weren’t solving the problems – yet.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

Then, we were on to Step 2 – Make a Plan . We talked about how this was where we were going to choose which strategy we were going to use. We also discussed how this was where we were going to figure out what operation to use. I taught the students Sheila Melton’s operation concept map.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

We talked about how if you know the total and know if it is equal or not, that will determine what operation you are doing. So, we took an example problem, such as:

Sheldon wants to make a cupcake for each of his 28 classmates. He can make 7 cupcakes with one box of cupcake mix. How many boxes will he need to buy?

We started off by asking ourselves, “Do we know the total?” We know there are a total of 28 classmates. So, yes, we are separating. Then, we ask, “Is it equal?” Yes, he wants to make a cupcake for EACH of his classmates. So, we are dividing: 28 divided by 7 = 4. He will need to buy 4 boxes. (I actually went ahead and solved it here – which is the next step, too.)

Step 3 – Solving the problem . We talked about how solving the problem involves the following:

  • taking our time
  • working the problem out
  • showing all our work
  • estimating the answer
  • using thinking strategies

We talked specifically about thinking strategies. Just like in reading, there are thinking strategies in math. I wanted students to be aware that sometimes when we are working on a problem, a particular strategy may not be working, and we may need to switch strategies. We also discussed that sometimes we may need to rethink the problem, to think of related content, or to even start over. We discussed these thinking strategies:

  • switch strategies or try a different one
  • rethink the problem
  • think of related content
  • decide if you need to make changes
  • check your work
  • but most important…don’t give up!

To make sure they were getting in practice utilizing these thinking strategies, I gave each group chart paper with a letter from a fellow “student” (not a real student), and they had to give advice on how to help them solve their problem using the thinking strategies above.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

Finally, Step 4 – Check It.   This is the step that students often miss. I wanted to emphasize just how important it is! I went over it with them, discussing that when they check their problems, they should always look for these things:

  • compare your answer to your estimate
  • check for reasonableness
  • check your calculations
  • add the units
  • restate the question in the answer
  • explain how you solved the problem

Then, I gave students practice cards. I provided them with example cards of “students” who had completed their assignments already, and I wanted them to be the teacher. They needed to check the work and make sure it was completed correctly. If it wasn’t, then they needed to tell what they missed and correct it.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

To demonstrate their understanding of the entire unit, we completed an adorable lap book (my first time ever putting together one or even creating one – I was surprised how well it turned out, actually). It was a great way to put everything we discussed in there.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

Once we were all done, students were officially Problem Solving S.T.A.R.S. I just reminded students frequently of this acronym.

Stop – Don’t rush with any solution; just take your time and look everything over.

Think – Take your time to think about the problem and solution.

Act  – Act on a strategy and try it out.

Review – Look it over and see if you got all the parts.

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

Wow, you are a true trooper sticking it out in this lengthy post! To sum up the majority of what I have written here, I have some problem-solving bookmarks FREE to help you remember and to help your students!

Problem solving tends to REALLY throw students for a loop when they're first introduced to it. Up until this point, math has been numbers, but now, math is numbers and words. I discuss four important steps I take in teaching problem solving, and I provide you with examples as I go. You can also check out my math workshop problem solving unit for third grade!

You can grab these problem-solving bookmarks for FREE by clicking here .

You can do any of these ideas without having to purchase anything. However, if you are looking to save some time and energy, then they are all found in my Math Workshop Problem Solving Unit . The unit is for grade three, but it  may work for other grade levels. The practice problems are all for the early third-grade level.

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5 Problem-Solving Activities for the Classroom

Problem-solving skills are necessary in all areas of life, and classroom problem solving activities can be a great way to get students prepped and ready to solve real problems in real life scenarios. Whether in school, work or in their social relationships, the ability to critically analyze a problem, map out all its elements and then prepare a workable solution is one of the most valuable skills one can acquire in life.

Educating your students about problem solving skills from an early age in school can be facilitated through classroom problem solving activities. Such endeavors encourage cognitive as well as social development, and can equip students with the tools they’ll need to address and solve problems throughout the rest of their lives. Here are five classroom problem solving activities your students are sure to benefit from as well as enjoy doing:

1. Brainstorm bonanza

Having your students create lists related to whatever you are currently studying can be a great way to help them to enrich their understanding of a topic while learning to problem-solve. For example, if you are studying a historical, current or fictional event that did not turn out favorably, have your students brainstorm ways that the protagonist or participants could have created a different, more positive outcome. They can brainstorm on paper individually or on a chalkboard or white board in front of the class.

2. Problem-solving as a group

Have your students create and decorate a medium-sized box with a slot in the top. Label the box “The Problem-Solving Box.” Invite students to anonymously write down and submit any problem or issue they might be having at school or at home, ones that they can’t seem to figure out on their own. Once or twice a week, have a student draw one of the items from the box and read it aloud. Then have the class as a group figure out the ideal way the student can address the issue and hopefully solve it.

3. Clue me in

This fun detective game encourages problem-solving, critical thinking and cognitive development. Collect a number of items that are associated with a specific profession, social trend, place, public figure, historical event, animal, etc. Assemble actual items (or pictures of items) that are commonly associated with the target answer. Place them all in a bag (five-10 clues should be sufficient.) Then have a student reach into the bag and one by one pull out clues. Choose a minimum number of clues they must draw out before making their first guess (two- three). After this, the student must venture a guess after each clue pulled until they guess correctly. See how quickly the student is able to solve the riddle.

4. Survivor scenarios

Create a pretend scenario for students that requires them to think creatively to make it through. An example might be getting stranded on an island, knowing that help will not arrive for three days. The group has a limited amount of food and water and must create shelter from items around the island. Encourage working together as a group and hearing out every child that has an idea about how to make it through the three days as safely and comfortably as possible.

5. Moral dilemma

Create a number of possible moral dilemmas your students might encounter in life, write them down, and place each item folded up in a bowl or bag. Some of the items might include things like, “I saw a good friend of mine shoplifting. What should I do?” or “The cashier gave me an extra $1.50 in change after I bought candy at the store. What should I do?” Have each student draw an item from the bag one by one, read it aloud, then tell the class their answer on the spot as to how they would handle the situation.

Classroom problem solving activities need not be dull and routine. Ideally, the problem solving activities you give your students will engage their senses and be genuinely fun to do. The activities and lessons learned will leave an impression on each child, increasing the likelihood that they will take the lesson forward into their everyday lives.

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Learning to Teach Mathematics Through Problem Solving

  • Open access
  • Published: 21 April 2022
  • Volume 57 , pages 407–423, ( 2022 )

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teaching through problem solving examples

  • Judy Bailey   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-9610-9083 1  

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While there has been much research focused on beginning teachers; and mathematical problem solving in the classroom, little is known about beginning primary teachers’ learning to teach mathematics through problem solving. This longitudinal study examined what supported beginning teachers to start and sustain teaching mathematics through problem solving in their first 2 years of teaching. Findings show ‘sustaining’ required a combination of three factors: (i) participation in professional development centred on problem solving (ii) attending subject-specific complementary professional development initiatives alongside colleagues from their school; and (iii) an in-school colleague who also teaches mathematics through problem solving. If only one factor is present, in this study attending the professional development focussed on problem solving, the result was little movement towards a problem solving based pedagogy. Recommendations for supporting beginning teachers to embed problem solving are included.

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Introduction

For many years curriculum documents worldwide have positioned mathematics as a problem solving endeavour (e.g., see Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2018 ; Ministry of Education, 2007 ). There is evidence however that even with this prolonged emphasis, problem solving has not become a significant presence in many classrooms (Felmer et al., 2019 ). Research has reported on a multitude of potential barriers, even for experienced teachers (Clarke et al., 2007 ; Holton, 2009 ). At the same time it is widely recognised that beginning teachers encounter many challenges as they start their careers, and that these challenges are particularly compelling when seeking to implement ambitious methods of teaching, such as problem solving (Wood et al., 2012 ).

Problem solving has been central to mathematics knowledge construction from the beginning of human history (Felmer et al., 2019 ). Teaching and learning mathematics through problem solving supports learners’ development of deep and conceptual understandings (Inoue et al., 2019 ), and is regarded as an effective way of catering for diversity (Hunter et al., 2018 ). While the importance and challenge of mathematical problem solving in school classrooms is not questioned, the promotion and enabling of problem solving is a contentious endeavour (English & Gainsburg, 2016 ). One debate centres on whether to teach mathematics through problem solving or to teach problem solving in and of itself. Recent scholarship (and this research) leans towards teaching mathematics through problem solving as a means for students to learn mathematics and come to appreciate what it means to do mathematics (Schoenfeld, 2013 ).

Problem solving has been defined in a multitude of ways over the years. Of central importance to problem solving as it is explored in this research study is Schoenfeld’s ( 1985 ) proposition that, “if one has ready access to a solution schema for a mathematical task, that task is an exercise and not a problem” (p. 74). A more recent definition of what constitutes a mathematical problem from Mamona-Downs and Mamona ( 2013 ) also emphasises the centrality of the learner not knowing how to proceed, highlighting that problems cannot be solved by procedural effort alone. These are important distinctions because traditional school texts and programmes often position problems and problem solving as an ‘add-on’ providing a practice opportunity for a previously taught, specific procedure. Given the range of learners in any education setting an important point to also consider is that what constitutes a problem for some students may not be a problem for others (Schoenfeld, 2013 ).

A research focus exploring what supports beginning teachers’ learning about teaching mathematics through problem solving is particularly relevant at this time given calls for an increased curricular focus on mathematical practices such as problem solving (Grootenboer et al., 2021 ) and recent recommendations from an expert advisory panel on the English-medium Mathematics and Statistics curriculum in Aotearoa (Royal Society Te Apārangi, 2021 ). The ninth recommendation from this report advocates for the provision of sustained professional learning in mathematics and statistics for all teachers of Years 0–8. With regard to beginning primary teachers, the recommendation goes further suggesting that ‘mathematics and statistics professional learning’ (p. 36) be considered as compulsory in the first 2 years of teaching. This research explores what the nature of that professional learning might involve, with a focus on problem solving.

Scoping the Context for Learning and Sustaining Problem Solving

The literature reviewed for this study draws from two key fields: the nature of support and professional development effective for beginning teachers; and specialised supports helping teachers to employ problem solving pedagogies.

Beginning Teachers, Support and Professional Development

A teacher’s early years in the profession are regarded as critical in terms of constructing a professional practice (Feiman-Nemser, 2003 ) and avoiding high attrition (Karlberg & Bezzina, 2020 ). Research has established that beginning teachers need professional development opportunities geared specifically to their needs (Fantilli & McDougall, 2009 ) and their contexts (Gaikhorst, et al., 2017 ). Providing appropriate support is not an uncontentious matter with calls for institutions to come together and collaborate to provide adequate and ongoing support (Karlberg & Bezzina, 2020 ). The proposal is that support is needed from both within and beyond the beginning teacher’s school; and begins with effective pre-service teacher preparation (Keese et al., 2022 ).

Within schools where beginning teachers regard the support they receive positively, collaboration, encouragement and ‘involved colleagues’ are considered as vital; with the guidance of a 'buddy’ identified as some of the most valuable in-school support activities (Gaikhorst et al., 2014 ). Cameron et al.’s ( 2007 ) research in Aotearoa reports beginning teachers joining collaborative work cultures had greater opportunities to talk about teaching with their colleagues, share planning and resources, examine students’ work, and benefit from the collective expertise of team members.

Opportunities to participate in networks beyond the beginning teacher’s school have also been identified as being important for teacher induction (Akiri & Dori, 2021 ; Cameron et al., 2007 ). Fantilli & McDougall ( 2009 ) in their Canadian study found beginning teachers reported a need for many support and professional development opportunities including subject-specific (e.g., mathematics) workshops prior to and throughout the year. Akiri and Dori ( 2021 ) also refer to the need for specialised support from subject-specific mentors. This echoes the findings of Wood et al. ( 2012 ) who advocate that given the complexity of learning to teach mathematics, induction support specific to mathematics, and rich opportunities to learn are not only desirable but essential.

Akiri and Dori ( 2021 ) describe three levels of mentoring support for beginning teachers including individual mentoring, group mentoring and mentoring networks with all three facilitating substantive professional growth. Of relevance to this paper are individual and group mentoring. Individual mentoring involves pairing an experienced teacher with a beginning teacher, so that a beginning teacher’s learning is supported. Group mentoring involves a group of teachers working with one or more mentors, with participants receiving guidance from their mentor(s) (Akiri & Dori, 2021 ). Findings from Akiri and Dori suggest that of the varying forms of mentoring, individual mentoring contributes the most for beginning teachers’ professional learning.

Teachers Learning to Teach Mathematics Through Problem Solving

Learning to teach mathematics through problem solving begins in pre-service teacher education. It has been shown that providing pre-service teachers with opportunities to engage in problem solving as learners can be productive (Bailey, 2015 ). Opportunities to practise content-specific instructional strategies such as problem solving during student teaching has also been positively associated with first-year teachers’ enactment of problem solving (Youngs et al., 2022 ).

The move from pre-service teacher education to the classroom can be fraught for beginning teachers (Feiman-Nemser, 2003 ), and all the more so for beginning teachers attempting to teach mathematics through problem solving (Wood et al., 2012 ). In a recent study (Darragh & Radovic, 2019 ) it has been shown that an individual willingness to change to a problem-based pedagogy may not be enough to sustain a change in practice in the long term, particularly if there is a contradiction with the context and ‘norms’ (e.g., school curriculum) within which a teacher is working. Cady et al. ( 2006 ) explored the beliefs and practices of two teachers from pre-service teacher education through to becoming experienced teachers. One teacher who initially adopted reform practices reverted to traditional beliefs about the learning and teaching of mathematics. In contrast, the other teacher implemented new practices only after understanding these and gaining teaching experience. Participation in mathematically focused professional development and involvement in resource development were thought to favourably influence the second teacher.

Lesson structures have been found to support teachers learning to teach mathematics through problem solving. Sullivan et al. ( 2016 ) explored the use of a structure comprising four phases: launching, exploring, summarising and consolidating. Teachers in Australia and Aotearoa have reported the structure as productive and feasible (Ingram et al., 2019 ; Sullivan et al., 2016 ). Teaching using challenging tasks (such as in problem solving) and a structure have been shown to accommodate student diversity, a pressing concern for many teachers. Student diversity has often been managed by grouping students according to perceived levels of capability (called ability grouping). Research identifies this practice as problematic, excluding and marginalising disadvantaged groups of students (e.g., see Anthony & Hunter, 2017 ). The lesson structure explored by Sullivan et al. ( 2016 ) caters for diversity by deliberately differentiating tasks, providing enabling and extending prompts. Extending prompts are offered to students who finish an original task quickly and ideally elicit abstraction and generalisation. Enabling prompts involve reducing the number of steps, simplifying the numbers, and/or varying forms of representation for students who cannot initially proceed, with the explicit intention that students then return to the original task.

Recognising the established challenges teachers encounter when learning about teaching mathematics through problem solving, and the paucity of recent research focussing on beginning teachers learning about teaching mathematics in this way, this paper draws on data from a 2 year longitudinal study. The study was guided by the research question:

What supports beginning teachers’ implementation of a problem solving pedagogy for the teaching and learning of mathematics?

Research Methodology and Methods

Data were gathered from three beginning primary teachers who had completed a 1 year graduate diploma programme in primary teacher education the previous year. The beginning teachers had undertaken a course in mathematics education (taught by the author for half of the course) as part of the graduate diploma. An invitation to be involved in the research was sent to the graduate diploma cohort at the end of the programme. Three beginning teachers indicated their interest and remained involved for the 2 year research period. The teachers had all secured their first teaching positions, and were teaching at different year levels at three different schools. Julia (pseudonyms have been used for all names) was teaching year 0–2 (5–6 years) at a small rural school; Charlotte, year 5–6 (9–10 years) at a large urban city school; and Reine, year 7–8 (11–12 years), at another small rural school. All three beginning teachers taught at their respective schools, teaching the same year levels in both years of the study. Ethical approval was sought and given by the author’s university ethics committee. Informed consent was gained from the teachers, school principals and involved parents and children.

Participatory action research was selected as the approach in the study because of its emphasis on the participation and collaboration of all those involved (Townsend, 2013 ). Congruent with the principles of action research, activities and procedures were negotiated throughout both years in a responsive and emergent way. The author acted as a co-participant with the teachers, aiming to improve practice, to challenge and reorient thinking, and transform contexts for children’s learning (Locke et al., 2013 ). The author’s role included facilitating the research-based problem solving workshops (see below), contributing her experience as a mathematics educator and researcher. The beginning teachers were involved in making sense of their own practice related to their particular sites and context.

The first step in the research process was a focus group discussion before the beginning teachers commenced their first year of teaching. This discussion included reflecting on their learning about problem solving during the mathematics education course; and envisaging what would be helpful to support implementation. It was agreed that a series of workshops would be useful. Two were subsequently held in the first year of the study, each for three hours, at the end of terms one and two. Four workshops were held during the second year, one during each term. At the end of the first year the author suggested a small number of experienced teachers who teach mathematics through problem solving join the workshops for the second year. The presence of these teachers was envisaged to support the beginning teachers’ learning. The beginning teachers agreed, and an invitation was extended to four teachers from other schools whom the author knew (e.g., through professional subject associations). The focus of the research remained the same, namely exploring what supported beginning teachers to implement a problem solving pedagogy.

Each workshop began with sharing and oral reflections about recent problem solving experiences, including successes and challenges. Key workshop tasks included developing a shared understanding of what constitutes problem solving, participating in solving mathematical problems (modelled using a lesson structure (Sullivan et al., 2016 ), and learning techniques such as asking questions. A time for reflective writing was provided at the end of each workshop to record what had been learned and an opportunity to set goals.

During the first focus group discussion it was also decided the author would visit and observe the beginning teachers teaching a problem solving lesson (or two) in term three or four of each year. A semi-structured interview between the author and each beginning teacher took place following each observed lesson. The beginning teachers also had an opportunity to ask questions as they reflected on the lesson, and feedback was given as requested. A second focus group discussion was held at the end of the first year (an approximate midpoint in the research), and a final focus group discussion was held at the end of the second year.

All focus group discussions, problem solving workshops, observations and interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Field notes of workshops (recorded by the author), reflections from the beginning teachers (written at the end of each workshop), and lesson observation notes (recorded by the author) were also gathered. The final data collected included occasional emails between each beginning teacher and the author.

Data Analysis

The analysis reported in this paper drew on all data sets, primarily using inductive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006 ). The research question guided the key question for analysis, namely: What supports beginning teachers’ implementation of a problem solving pedagogy for the teaching and learning of mathematics? Alongside this question, consideration was also given to the challenges beginning teachers encountered as they implemented a problem solving pedagogy. Data familiarisation was developed through reading and re-reading the whole body of data. This process informed data analysis and the content for each subsequent workshop and focus group discussions. Colour-coding and naming of themes included comparing and contrasting data from each beginning teacher and throughout the 2-year period. As a theme was constructed (Braun & Clarke, 2006 ) subsequent data was checked to ascertain whether the theme remained valid and/or whether it changed during the 2 years. Three key themes emerged revealing what supported the beginning teachers’ developing problem solving pedagogy, and these constitute the focus for this paper.

Mindful of the time pressures beginning teachers experience in their early years, the author undertook responsibility for data analysis. The author’s understanding of the unfolding ‘story’ of each beginning teacher’s experiences and the emerging themes were shared with the beginning teachers, usually at the beginning of a workshop, focus group discussion or observation. Through this process the author’s understandings were checked and clarified. This iterative process of member checking (Lincoln & Guba, 1985 ) began at a mid-point during the first year, once a significant body of data had been gathered. At a later point in the analysis and writing, the beginning teachers also had an opportunity to read, check and/or amend quotes chosen to exemplify their thinking and experiences.

Findings and Discussion

In this section the three beginning teachers’ experiences at the start of the 2 year research timeframe is briefly described, followed by the first theme centred on the use of a lesson structure including prompts for differentiation. The second and third themes are presented together, starting with a brief outline of each beginning teacher’s ‘story’ providing the context within which the themes emerged. Sharing the ‘story’ of each beginning teacher and including their ‘voice’ through quotes acknowledges them and their experiences as central to this research.

The beginning teachers’ pre-service teacher education set the scene for learning about teaching mathematics through problem solving. A detailed list brainstormed during the first focus group discussion suggested a developing understanding from their shared pre-service mathematics education course. In their first few weeks of teaching, all three beginning teachers implemented a few problems. It transpired however this inclusion of problem solving occurred only while children were being assessed and grouped. Following this, all three followed a traditional format of skill-based (with a focus on number) mathematics, taught using ability groups. The beginning teachers’ trajectories then varied with Julia and Reine both eventually adopting a pedagogy primarily based on problem solving, while Charlotte employed a traditional skill-based mathematics using a combination of whole class and small group teaching.

A Lesson Structure that Caters for Diversity Supports Early Efforts

Data show that developing familiarity with a lesson structure including prompts for differentiation supported the beginning teachers’ early efforts with a problem solving pedagogy. This addressed a key issue that emerged during the first workshop. During the workshop while a ‘list’ of ideas for teaching a problem solving lesson was co-constructed, considerable concern was expressed about catering for a range of learners when introducing and working with a problem. For example, Charlotte queried, “ Well, what happens when you are trying to do something more complicated, and we’re (referring to children) sitting here going, ‘I’ve no idea what you're talking about” ? Reine suggested keeping some children with the teacher, thinking he would say, “ If you’re unsure of any part stay behind” . He was unsure however about how he would then maintain the integrity of the problem.

It was in light of this discussion that a lesson structure with differentiated prompts (Sullivan et al., 2016 ) was introduced, experienced and reflected on during the second workshop. While the co-constructed list developed during the first workshop had included many components of Sullivan’s lesson structure, (e.g., a consideration of ‘extensions’) there had been no mention of ‘enabling prompts’. Now, with the inclusion of both enabling and extending prompts, the beginning teachers’ discussion revealed them starting to more fully envisage the possibilities of using a problem solving approach, and being able to cater for all children. Reine commented that, “… you can give the entire class a problem, you've just got to have a plan, [and] your enabling and extension prompts” . Charlotte was also now considering and valuing the possibility of having a whole class work on the same problem. She said, “I think … it’s important and it’s useful for your whole class to be working on the same thing. And … have enablers and extenders to make sure that everyone feels successful” . Julia also referred to the planning prompts. She thought it would be key to “plan it well so that we’ve got enabling and extending prompts” .

Successful Problem Solving Lessons

Following the second workshop all three beginning teachers were observed teaching a lesson using the structure. These lessons delighted the beginning teachers, with them noting prolonged engagement of children, the children’s learning and being able to cater for all learners. Reine commented on how excited and engaged the children were, saying they were, “ just so enthusiastic about it ”. In Charlotte’s words, “ it really worked ”, and Julia enthusiastically pondered this could be “ the only way you teach maths !”.

During the focus group discussion at the end of the first year, all three reflected on the value of the lesson structure. Reine called it a ‘framework’ commenting,

I like the framework. So from start to finish, how you go through that whole lesson. So how you set it up and then you go through the phases… I like the prompts that we went through…. knowing where you could go, if they’re like, ‘What do I do?’ And then if they get it too easy then ‘Where can you go?’ So you've got all these little avenues.

Charlotte also valued the lesson structure for the breadth of learning that could occur, explaining,

… it really helped, and really worked. So I found that useful for me and my class ‘cause they really understood. And I think also making sure that you know all the ins and outs of a problem. So where could they go? What do you need to know? What do they need to know?

While the beginning teachers’ pre-service teacher education and the subsequent research process, including the use of the lesson structure, supported the beginning teachers’ early efforts teaching mathematics through problem solving, two key factors further enabled two of the beginning teachers (Julia and Reine) to sustain a problem solving pedagogy. These were:

Being involved in complementary mathematics professional development alongside members of their respective school staff (a form of group mentoring); and

Having a colleague in the same school teaching mathematics through problem solving (a form of individual mentoring).

Charlotte did not have these opportunities and she indicated this limited her implementation. Data for these findings for each teacher are presented below.

Complementary Professional Development and Problem Solving Colleague in Same School

Julia began to significantly implement problem solving from the second term in the first year. This coincided with her attending a 2-day workshop (with staff from her school) that focused on the use of problem solving to support children who are not achieving at expected levels (see ALiM: Accelerated Learning in Maths—Ministry of Education, 2022 ). She explained, “ … I did the PD with (colleague’s name), which was really helpful. And we did lots of talking about rich learning tasks and problem solving tasks…. And what it means ”. Following this, Julia reported using rich tasks and problem solving in her mathematics teaching in a regular (at least weekly) and ongoing way.

During the observation in term three of the first year Julia again referred to the impact of having a colleague also teaching mathematics through problem solving. When asked what she believed had supported her to become a teacher who teaches mathematics in this way she firstly identified her involvement in the research project, and then spoke about her colleague. She said, “ I’m really lucky one of our other teachers is doing the ALiM project… So we’re kind of bouncing off each other a little bit with resources and activities, and things like that. So that’s been really good ”.

At the beginning of the second year, Julia reiterated this point again. On this occasion she said having a colleague teaching mathematics through problem solving, “ made a huge difference for me last year ”, explaining the value included having someone to talk with on a daily basis. Mid-way through the second year Julia repeated her opinion about the value of frequent contact with a practising problem solving colleague. Whereas her initial comments spoke of the impact in terms of being “ a little bit ”, later references recount these as ‘ huge ’ and ‘ enabling ’. She described:

a huge effect… it enabled me. Cause I mean these workshops are really helpful. But when it’s only once a term, having [colleague] there just enabled me to kind of bounce ideas off. And if I did a lesson that didn’t work very well, we could talk about why that was, and actually talk about what the learning was instead…. . It was being able to reflect together, but also share ideas. It was amazing.

Julia’s comments raise two points. It is likely that participating in the ALiM professional development (which could be conceived as a form of group mentoring) consolidated the learning she first encountered during pre-service teacher education and later extended through her involvement in the research. Having a colleague (in essence, an individual mentor) within the same school teaching mathematics through problem solving appears to be another factor that supported Julia to implement problem solving in a more sustained way. Julia’s comments allude to a number of reasons for this, including: (i) the more frequent discussion opportunities with a colleague who understands what it means for children to learn mathematics through problem solving; (ii) being able to share and plan suitable activities and resources; and (iii) as a means for reflection, particularly when challenges were encountered.

Reine’s mathematics programme throughout the first year was based on ability groups and could be described as traditional. He occasionally used some mathematical problems as ‘extension activities’ for ‘higher level’ children, or as ‘fillers’. In the second year, Reine moved to working with mixed ability groups (where students work together in small groups with varying levels of perceived capability) and initially implemented problem solving approximately once a fortnight. In thinking back to these lessons he commented, “ We weren’t really unpacking one problem properly, it was just lots of busy stuff ”. A significant shift occurred in Reine’s practice to teaching mathematics primarily by problem solving towards the last half of the second year. He explained, “ I really ramped up towards terms three and four, where it’s more picking one problem across the whole maths class but being really, really conscious of that problem. Low entry, high ceiling, and doing more of it too ”.

Reine attributed this change to a number of factors. In response to a question about what he considered led to the change he explained,

… having this, talking about this stuff, trialling it and then with our PD at school with the research into ability grouping... We’ve got a lot of PD saying why it can be harmful to group on ability, and that’s been that last little kick I needed, I think. And with other teachers trialling this as well. Our senior teacher has flipped her whole maths program and just does problem solving.

Like Julia, Reine firstly referred to his involvement in the research project including having opportunities to try problems in his class and discuss his experiences within the research group. He then told of a colleague teaching at his school leading school-wide professional development focussed on the pitfalls of ability grouping in mathematics (e.g., see Clarke, 2021 ) and instead using problem solving tasks. He also referred to having another teacher also teaching mathematics through problem solving. It is interesting to consider that having positive experiences in pre-service teacher education, the positive and encouraging support of colleagues (Reine’s principal and co-teacher in both years), regular participation in ongoing professional development (the problem solving workshops), and having a highly successful one-off problem solving teaching experience (the first year observation) were not enough for Reine to meaningfully sustain problem solving in his first year of teaching.

As for Julia, pivotal factors leading to a sustaining of problem solving teaching practice in the second year included complementary mathematics professional development (a form of group mentoring) and at least one other teacher (acting as an individual mentor) in the same school teaching mathematics through problem solving. It could be argued that pre-service teacher education and the problem solving workshops ‘paved the way’ for Julia and Reine to make a change. However, for both, the complementary professional development and presence of a colleague also teaching through problem solving were pivotal. It is also interesting to note that three of the four experienced teachers in the larger research group taught at the same level as Reine (see Table 1 below) yet he did not relate this to the significant change in his practice observed towards the end of the second year.

Charlotte’s mathematics programme during the first year was also traditional, teaching skill-based mathematics using ability groups. At the beginning of the second year Charlotte moved to teaching her class as a whole group, using flexible grouping as needed (children are grouped together in response to learning needs with regard to a specific idea at a point in time, rather than perceived notions of ability). She reported that she occasionally taught a lesson using problem solving in the first year, and approximately once or twice a term in the second year. Charlotte did not have opportunities for professional development in mathematics nor did she have a colleague in the same school teaching mathematics through problem solving. Pondering this, Charlotte said,

It would have been helpful if I had someone else in my school doing the same thing. I just thought about when you were saying the other lady was doing it [referring to Julia’s colleague]. You know, someone that you can just kind of back-and-forth like. I find with Science, I usually plan with this other lady, and we share ideas and plan together. We come up with some really cool stuff whereas I don’t really have the same thing for this.

Based on her experiences with teaching science it is clear Charlotte recognised the value of working alongside a colleague. In this, her view aligns with what Julia and Reine experienced.

Table 1 provides a summary of the variables for each beginning teacher, and whether a sustained implementation of teaching mathematics through problem solving occurred.

The table shows two variables common to Julia and Reine, the beginning teachers who began and sustained problem solving. They both participated in complementary professional development with colleagues from their school, and the presence of a colleague, also at their school, teaching mathematics through problem solving. Given that Julia was able to implement problem solving in the absence of a ‘research workshop colleague’ teaching at the same year level, and Reine’s lack of comment about the potential impact of this, suggests that this was not a key factor enabling a sustained implementation of problem solving.

Attributing the changes in Julia and Reine’s teaching practice primarily to their involvement in complementary professional development attended by members of their school staff, and the presence of at least one other teacher teaching mathematics through problem solving in their school, is further supported by a consideration of the timing of the changes. The data shows that while Julia could be considered an ‘early adopter’, Reine changed his practice reasonably late in the 2 year period. Julia’s early adoption of teaching mathematics through problem solving coincided with her involvement, early in the 2 years, in the professional development and opportunity to work alongside a problem solving practising colleague. Reine encountered these similar conditions towards the end of the 2 years and it is notable that this was the point at which he changed his practice. That problem solving did not become embedded or frequent within Charlotte’s mathematics programme tends to support the argument.

Understanding what supports primary teachers to teach mathematics through problem solving at the beginning of their careers is important because all students, including those taught by beginning teachers, need opportunities to develop high-level thinking, reasoning, and problem solving skills. It is also important in light of recent calls for mathematics curricula to include more emphasis on mathematical practices (such as problem solving) (e.g., see Grootenboer et al., 2021 ); and the Royal Society Te Apārangi report ( 2021 ). Findings from this research suggest that learning about problem solving during pre-service teacher education is enough for beginning teachers to trial teaching mathematics in this way. Early efforts were supported by gaining experience with a lesson structure that specifically attends to diversity. The lesson structure prompted the beginning teachers to anticipate different children’s responses, and consider how they would respond to these. An increased confidence and sense of security to trial teaching mathematics through problem solving was enabled, based on their more in-depth preparation. Beginning teachers finding the lesson structure useful extends the findings of Sullivan et al. ( 2016 ) in Australia and Ingram et al. ( 2019 ) in Aotearoa to include less experienced teachers.

In order for teaching mathematics through problem solving to be sustained however, a combination of three factors, subsequent to pre-service teacher education, was needed: (i) active participation in problem solving workshops (in this context provided by the research-based problem solving workshops); (ii) attending complementary professional development initiatives alongside colleagues from their school (a form of group mentoring); and (iii) the presence of an in-school colleague who also teaches mathematics through problem solving (a form of individual mentoring). It seems possible these three factors acted synergistically resulting in Julia and Reine being able to sustain implementation. If only one factor is present, in this study attending the problem solving workshops, and despite a genuine interest in using a problem based pedagogy, the result was limited movement towards this way of teaching.

Akiri and Dori ( 2021 ) have reported that individual mentoring contributes the most to beginning teachers’ professional growth. In a manner consistent with these findings, an in-school colleague (who in essence was acting as an individual mentor) played a critical role in supporting Reine and Julia. However, while Akiri and Dori, amongst others (e.g., Cameron et al., 2007 ; Karlberg & Bezzina, 2020 ), have identified the value of supportive, approachable colleagues, for both Julia and Reine it was important that their colleague was supportive and approachable, and actively engaged in teaching mathematics through problem solving. Having supportive and approachable colleagues, as Reine experienced in his first year, on their own were not enough to support a sustained problem solving pedagogy.

Implications for Productive Professional Learning and Development

This study sought to explore the conditions that supported problem solving for beginning teachers, each in their unique context and from their perspective. The research did not examine how the teaching of mathematics through problem solving affected children’s learning. However, multiple sets of data were collected and analysed over a 2-year period. While it is neither possible nor appropriate to make claims as to generalisability some suggestions for productive beginning teacher professional learning and development are offered.

Given the first years of teaching constitute a particular and critical phase of teacher learning (Karlberg & Bezzina, 2020 ) and the findings from this research, it is imperative that well-funded, subject-focussed support occurs throughout a beginning teacher’s first 2 years of teaching. This is consistent with the ninth recommendation in the Royal Society Te Apārangi report ( 2021 ) suggesting compulsory professional learning during the induction period (2 years in Aotearoa New Zealand). Participation in subject-specific professional development has been recognised to favourably influence new teachers’ efforts to adopt reform practices such as problem solving (Cady et al., 2006 ).

Findings from this study suggest professional development opportunities that complement each other support beginning teacher learning. In the first instance complementarity needs to be with what beginning teachers have learned during their pre-service teacher education. In this study, the research-based problem solving workshops served this role. Complementarity between varying forms of professional development also appears to be important. Furthermore, as indicated by Julia and Reine’s experiences, subsequent professional development need not be on exactly the same topic. Rather, it can be complementary in the sense that there is an underlying congruence in philosophy and/or focus on a particular issue. For example, it emerged in the problem solving workshops, that being able to cater for diversity was a central concern for the beginning teachers. Attending to this issue within the problem solving workshops via the introduction of a lesson structure that enabled differentiation, was congruent with the nature of the professional development in the two schools: ALiM in Julia’s school, and mixed ability grouping and teaching mathematics through problem solving in Reine’s school. All three of these settings were focussed on positively responding to diversity in learning needs.

The presence of a colleague within the same school teaching mathematics through problem solving also appears to be pivotal. This is consistent with Darragh and Radovic ( 2019 ) who have shown the significant impact a teacher’s school context has on their potential to sustain problem based pedagogies in mathematics. Given that problem solving is not prevalent in many primary classrooms, it would seem clear that colleagues who have yet to learn about teaching mathematics through problem solving, particularly those that have a role supporting beginning teachers, will also require access to professional development opportunities. It seems possible that beginning and experienced teachers learning together is a potential pathway forward. Finding such pathways will be critical if mathematical problem solving is to be consistently implemented in primary classrooms.

Finally, these implications together with calls for institutions to collaborate to provide adequate and ongoing support for new teachers (Karlberg & Bezzina, 2020 ) suggest there is a need for pre-service teacher educators, professional development providers and the Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand to work together to support beginning teachers’ starting and sustaining teaching mathematics through problem solving pedagogies.

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Bailey, J. Learning to Teach Mathematics Through Problem Solving. NZ J Educ Stud 57 , 407–423 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40841-022-00249-0

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