Problem Solving Lessons – Top Tips

Here are some quick tips to improve pupils problem solving skills

1. Get pupils working in groups
Research shows that working in groups is great for pupils problem solving skills. If pupils are talking about it together, they can share ideas and continuously evaluate what they are hearing from each other. In doing that, they are imagining what might be and making connections. Best of all, when pupils talk about how to solve a problem, they almost always have an opportunity to combine and strengthen ideas.

2. Pose open ended problems
If there is only one answer to a problem, normally there are only a couple ways to go about solving that problem. Try posing open ended questions such as: “How many lightbulbs are there in London?” or set a challenge to find out “How much liquid would it take to fill this classroom?”. Both questions require lots of discussion amongst pupils about what the best way is to go around solving the problem.
The first problem does not have an accurate or correct answer! The value in it is that pupils understanding of a line of reasoning will develop. The second question encourages practical and creative approaches, especially if pupils are given no metre sticks or rulers. It get’s them thinking outside the box! If they only have a piece of A4 paper as their equipment, then they have to use the knowledge that it is approximately 30cm in length! The answer doesn’t necessarily need to be given in litres, the question doesn’t ask for that…

3. Give pupils time and encouragement, but don’t do the thinking for them!
This is sometimes one of the most difficult things to do in the classroom because we normally cover so many problems in the space of a one hour maths lesson. However, giving pupils time and space to think and come up with ideas is extremely important. We do too much thinking for pupils because we want to help them, but with problem solving, they need to learn the skill of breaking down the problem and thinking about how they will break it down to approach it.
Text books and exam questions are especially bad at this. Exams questions pose a problem and and do all the thinking for the person being tested by breaking it down into parts A,B,C and D. I intend to post about this more at a later date.

4. Ask pupils to present their approach on how they intend to solve the problem…
Yes, that read correctly! It is great to have an answer, but it’s also important to value the process of how pupils get to that answer. That is often where the most original, creative and mathematical thinking is happening. We should show that we appreciate the thinking and time involved in getting to an answer. If your pupils are working in groups, let them know that one person from the group is expected to present back to the class. Also, let them know you will be picking that person at random! That way, everyone in the group has to know about and agree on their approach to the problem together when presenting.

To end with, I love this quote:

[bra_blockquote align=”right”] Problem solving is “what you do when you don’t know what to do.” [/bra_blockquote]

What a great way to explain what problem solving is all about to your pupils. The quote is taken from the article linked to above.

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