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Three excellent ideas for teaching problem solving

Having engaging mathematics resources on hand is important for getting primary school students enthusiastic about the subject. Read on for creative ways to teach problem solving and get students looking forward to their next maths class.
Three excellent ideas for teaching problem solving

Mathematics has a bad reputation. It can sometimes be seen as boring and difficult. Often children struggle to see its relevance and to connect with it personally. As a primary school teacher, you must overcome these preconceptions. It is up to you to find ways for children to be interested in and enthusiastic about mathematics (or maths).

This is where problem solving comes in. Problem solving is an engaging way to teach maths. While the problems primary students encounter will focus on mathematic skills, they have real-life relevance and are less restrictive.

In the way problem solving is a tool for teaching mathematics, it is also a learning goal of maths. The curriculum asks maths students to solve unfamiliar problems and explain how they reached their answers.

This is the aim of problem solving: the answer itself and the method used to reach the answer.

Essential Resources mathematics resources cover all year levels in primary school. They provide a range of mathematics worksheets and investigations to get children problem solving, thinking creatively and (hopefully), excited about maths.

Here are three excellent ideas from our authors for teaching problem solving in primary school.

Teaching problem solving with task cards 

Lijun Guan’s series, Maths Problem Solving, has task and solution cards to develop problem solving and decision-making skills in primary students.

Task cards are an effective way of teaching problem solving because each card contains a single problem. It can be overwhelming for students when they are presented with a list of problems to solve. Facing one problem at a time, though, appears more manageable.

Task cards can also be used in a greater variety of ways than traditional methods of teaching maths.

For example, the task and solution cards can be hung around the room, like a gallery. Children can go around the room choosing a card they want to work on. They can start anywhere and go in any order.

This is an interactive and social way to teach problem-solving. It encourages students to share and collaborate as well as move around.

Guan says the solution cards are central to the learning process because primary students work best when they feel they have support if they need it. They also show students how they can apply a thinking process to solve future similar problems.

Task cards are also useful teaching resources to meet the specific needs of individual students. For example, students can do more or fewer cards depending on their ability.

Open-ended problems and investigations

Some educators will argue there is no difference between open-ended problems and investigations. Others may say open-ended problems have a clear goal but more than one solution. On the other hand, investigations have a less specific goal with many possible pathways and outcomes available.

Regardless they are both interesting and effective ways to teach problem-solving.

As they are open-ended, the questions expand rather than restrict thinking. Young mathematicians can use more than one strategy to answer a question. This teaches them that problems can be solved in more than one way and have multiple answers.

For students not confident with maths, these types of problems encourage involvement and being successful can look like:

  • finding one solution to a problem or…
  • finding and explaining every possible solution.

Furthermore, open-ended problems (including investigations) in maths have more potential to stimulate high-order thinking and creativity.

The Essential Resources maths range includes two series of books for open-ended problem solving and maths investigations:

Open-ended Problem Solving

Games are an effective way to teach problem solving

Disguising problem solving in the form of a game is a great way to get primary students enthusiastic about maths. These can include number games, puzzles or online games.

From a problem solving perspective, games are a way to visually present problems to students. This helps them to “see” the problem and better comprehend it.

The value of game-based learning (GBL) also comes from the other transferrable capabilities GBL develops.

A New Zealand report by Rachel Bolstad and Sue McDowall, found:

“Teachers talked about students’ engagement and motivation, a great sense of cohesion, collaboration, and inclusion across the class, and the ways in which GBL revealed unexpected strengths and interests in students.”

The teachers in the report thought GBL was most effective when it was “woven into a well-thought-out pedagogical process that helped students to make explicit connections to the subject area.”

no nonsense number games

From maths worksheets and task cards to online games and puzzles, there are a variety of primary school-level maths teaching resources available today. Mix it up in your classroom. Your students will find problem solving can be achievable and, dare we say it, fun.

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