Mathematics as a Complex Problem-Solving Activity
By jacob klerlein and sheena hervey, generation ready.
By the time young children enter school they are already well along the pathway to becoming problem solvers. From birth, children are learning how to learn: they respond to their environment and the reactions of others. This making sense of experience is an ongoing, recursive process. We have known for a long time that reading is a complex problem-solving activity. More recently, teachers have come to understand that becoming mathematically literate is also a complex problem-solving activity that increases in power and flexibility when practiced more often. A problem in mathematics is any situation that must be resolved using mathematical tools but for which there is no immediately obvious strategy. If the way forward is obvious, it’s not a problem—it is a straightforward application.
Mathematicians have always understood that problem-solving is central to their discipline because without a problem there is no mathematics. Problem-solving has played a central role in the thinking of educational theorists ever since the publication of Pólya’s book “How to Solve It,” in 1945. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has been consistently advocating for problem-solving for nearly 40 years, while international trends in mathematics teaching have shown an increased focus on problem-solving and mathematical modeling beginning in the early 1990s. As educators internationally became increasingly aware that providing problem-solving experiences is critical if students are to be able to use and apply mathematical knowledge in meaningful ways (Wu and Zhang 2006) little changed at the school level in the United States.
“Problem-solving is not only a goal of learning mathematics, but also a major means of doing so.”
(NCTM, 2000, p. 52)
In 2011 the Common Core State Standards incorporated the NCTM Process Standards of problem-solving, reasoning and proof, communication, representation, and connections into the Standards for Mathematical Practice. For many teachers of mathematics this was the first time they had been expected to incorporate student collaboration and discourse with problem-solving. This practice requires teaching in profoundly different ways as schools moved from a teacher-directed to a more dialogic approach to teaching and learning. The challenge for teachers is to teach students not only to solve problems but also to learn about mathematics through problem-solving. While many students may develop procedural fluency, they often lack the deep conceptual understanding necessary to solve new problems or make connections between mathematical ideas.
“A problem-solving curriculum, however, requires a different role from the teacher. Rather than directing a lesson, the teacher needs to provide time for students to grapple with problems, search for strategies and solutions on their own, and learn to evaluate their own results. Although the teacher needs to be very much present, the primary focus in the class needs to be on the students’ thinking processes.”
(Burns, 2000, p. 29)
Learning to problem solve
To understand how students become problem solvers we need to look at the theories that underpin learning in mathematics. These include recognition of the developmental aspects of learning and the essential fact that students actively engage in learning mathematics through “doing, talking, reflecting, discussing, observing, investigating, listening, and reasoning” (Copley, 2000, p. 29). The concept of co-construction of learning is the basis for the theory. Moreover, we know that each student is on their unique path of development.
Beliefs underpinning effective teaching of mathematics
- Every student’s identity, language, and culture need to be respected and valued.
- Every student has the right to access effective mathematics education.
- Every student can become a successful learner of mathematics.
Children arrive at school with intuitive mathematical understandings. A teacher needs to connect with and build on those understandings through experiences that allow students to explore mathematics and to communicate their ideas in a meaningful dialogue with the teacher and their peers.
Learning takes place within social settings (Vygotsky, 1978). Students construct understandings through engagement with problems and interaction with others in these activities. Through these social interactions, students feel that they can take risks, try new strategies, and give and receive feedback. They learn cooperatively as they share a range of points of view or discuss ways of solving a problem. It is through talking about problems and discussing their ideas that children construct knowledge and acquire the language to make sense of experiences.
Students acquire their understanding of mathematics and develop problem-solving skills as a result of solving problems, rather than being taught something directly (Hiebert1997). The teacher’s role is to construct problems and present situations that provide a forum in which problem-solving can occur.
Why is problem-solving important?
Our students live in an information and technology-based society where they need to be able to think critically about complex issues, and “analyze and think logically about new situations, devise unspecified solution procedures, and communicate their solution clearly and convincingly to others” (Baroody, 1998). Mathematics education is important not only because of the “gatekeeping role that mathematics plays in students’ access to educational and economic opportunities,” but also because the problem-solving processes and the acquisition of problem-solving strategies equips students for life beyond school (Cobb, & Hodge, 2002).
The importance of problem-solving in learning mathematics comes from the belief that mathematics is primarily about reasoning, not memorization. Problem-solving allows students to develop understanding and explain the processes used to arrive at solutions, rather than remembering and applying a set of procedures. It is through problem-solving that students develop a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts, become more engaged, and appreciate the relevance and usefulness of mathematics (Wu and Zhang 2006). Problem-solving in mathematics supports the development of:
- The ability to think creatively, critically, and logically
- The ability to structure and organize
- The ability to process information
- Enjoyment of an intellectual challenge
- The skills to solve problems that help them to investigate and understand the world
Problem-solving should underlie all aspects of mathematics teaching in order to give students the experience of the power of mathematics in the world around them. This method allows students to see problem-solving as a vehicle to construct, evaluate, and refine their theories about mathematics and the theories of others.
Problems that are “Problematic”
The teacher’s expectations of the students are essential. Students only learn to handle complex problems by being exposed to them. Students need to have opportunities to work on complex tasks rather than a series of simple tasks devolved from a complex task. This is important for stimulating the students’ mathematical reasoning and building durable mathematical knowledge (Anthony and Walshaw, 2007). The challenge for teachers is ensuring the problems they set are designed to support mathematics learning and are appropriate and challenging for all students. The problems need to be difficult enough to provide a challenge but not so difficult that students can’t succeed. Teachers who get this right create resilient problem solvers who know that with perseverance they can succeed. Problems need to be within the students’ “Zone of Proximal Development” (Vygotsky 1968). These types of complex problems will provide opportunities for discussion and learning.
Students will have opportunities to explain their ideas, respond to the ideas of others, and challenge their thinking. Those students who think math is all about the “correct” answer will need support and encouragement to take risks. Tolerance of difficulty is essential in a problem-solving disposition because being “stuck” is an inevitable stage in resolving just about any problem. Getting unstuck typically takes time and involves trying a variety of approaches. Students need to learn this experientially. Effective problems:
- Are accessible and extendable
- Allow individuals to make decisions
- Promote discussion and communication
- Encourage originality and invention
- Encourage “what if?” and “what if not?” questions
- Contain an element of surprise (Adapted from Ahmed, 1987)
“Students learn to problem solve in mathematics primarily through ‘doing, talking, reflecting, discussing, observing, investigating, listening, and reasoning.”
(Copley, 2000, p. 29)
“…as learners investigate together. It becomes a mini- society – a community of learners engaged in mathematical activity, discourse and reflection. Learners must be given the opportunity to act as mathematicians by allowing, supporting and challenging their ‘mathematizing’ of particular situations. The community provides an environment in which individual mathematical ideas can be expressed and tested against others’ ideas.…This enables learners to become clearer and more confident about what they know and understand.”
(Fosnot, 2005, p. 10)
Research shows that ‘classrooms where the orientation consistently defines task outcomes in terms of the answers rather than the thinking processes entailed in reaching the answers negatively affects the thinking processes and mathematical identities of learners’ (Anthony and Walshaw, 2007, page 122).
Effective teachers model good problem-solving habits for their students. Their questions are designed to help children use a variety of strategies and materials to solve problems. Students often want to begin without a plan in mind. Through appropriate questions, the teacher gives students some structure for beginning the problem without telling them exactly what to do. In 1945 Pólya published the following four principles of problem-solving to support teachers with helping their students.
- Understand and explore the problem
- Find a strategy
- Use the strategy to solve the problem
- Look back and reflect on the solution
Problem-solving is not linear but rather a complex, interactive process. Students move backward and forward between and across Pólya’s phases. The Common Core State Standards describe the process as follows:
“Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution. They analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals. They make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution and plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt. They consider analogous problems, and try special cases and simpler forms of the original problem in order to gain insight into its solution. They monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary”. (New York State Next Generation Mathematics Learning Standards 2017).
Pólya’s Principals of Problem-Solving
Students move forward and backward as they move through the problem-solving process.
The goal is for students to have a range of strategies they use to solve problems and understand that there may be more than one solution. It is important to realize that the process is just as important, if not more important, than arriving at a solution, for it is in the solution process that students uncover the mathematics. Arriving at an answer isn’t the end of the process. Reflecting on the strategies used to solve the problem provides additional learning experiences. Studying the approach used for one problem helps students become more comfortable with using that strategy in a variety of other situations.
When making sense of ideas, students need opportunities to work both independently and collaboratively. There will be times when students need to be able to work independently and other times when they will need to be able to work in small groups so that they can share ideas and learn with and from others.
Effective teachers of mathematics create purposeful learning experiences for students through solving problems in relevant and meaningful contexts. While word problems are a way of putting mathematics into contexts, it doesn’t automatically make them real. The challenge for teachers is to provide students with problems that draw on their experience of reality, rather than asking them to suspend it. Realistic does not mean that problems necessarily involve real contexts, but rather they make students think in “real” ways.
Planning for talk
By planning for and promoting discourse, teachers can actively engage students in mathematical thinking. In discourse-rich mathematics classes, students explain and discuss the strategies and processes they use in solving mathematical problems, thereby connecting their everyday language with the specialized vocabulary of mathematics.
Students need to understand how to communicate mathematically, give sound mathematical explanations, and justify their solutions. Effective teachers encourage their students to communicate their ideas orally, in writing, and by using a variety of representations. Through listening to students, teachers can better understand what their students know and misconceptions they may have. It is the misconceptions that provide a window into the students’ learning process. Effective teachers view thinking as “the process of understanding,” they can use their students’ thinking as a resource for further learning. Such teachers are responsive both to their students and to the discipline of mathematics.
“Mathematics today requires not only computational skills but also the ability to think and reason mathematically in order to solve the new problems and learn the new ideas that students will face in the future. Learning is enhanced in classrooms where students are required to evaluate their own ideas and those of others, are encouraged to make mathematical conjectures and test them, and are helped to develop their reasoning skills.”
(John Van De Walle)
“Equity. Excellence in mathematics education requires equity—high expectations and strong support for all students.”
How teachers organize classroom instruction is very much dependent on what they know and believe about mathematics and on what they understand about mathematics teaching and learning. Teachers need to recognize that problem-solving processes develop over time and are significantly improved by effective teaching practices. The teacher’s role begins with selecting rich problem-solving tasks that focus on the mathematics the teacher wants their students to explore. A problem-solving approach is not only a way for developing students’ thinking, but it also provides a context for learning mathematical concepts. Problem-solving allows students to transfer what they have already learned to unfamiliar situations. A problem-solving approach provides a way for students to actively construct their ideas about mathematics and to take responsibility for their learning. The challenge for mathematics teachers is to develop the students’ mathematical thinking process alongside the knowledge and to create opportunities to present even routine mathematics tasks in problem-solving contexts.
Given the efforts to date to include problem-solving as an integral component of the mathematics curriculum and the limited implementation in classrooms, it will take more than rhetoric to achieve this goal. While providing valuable professional learning, resources, and more time are essential steps, it is possible that problem-solving in mathematics will only become valued when high-stakes assessment reflects the importance of students’ solving of complex problems.
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Benefits of Problem Solving
Using a problem solving approach to teaching and learning maths is of value to all students and especially to those who are high achieving. Some of the reasons for using problem solving are summarised below.
- Problem solving places the focus on the student making sense of mathematical ideas. When solving problems students are exploring the mathematics within a problem context rather than as an abstract.
- Problem solving encourages students to believe in their ability to think mathematically. They will see that they can apply the maths that they are learning to find the solution to a problem.
- Problem solving provides ongoing assessment information that can help teachers make instructional decisions. The discussions and recording involved in problem solving provide a rich source of information about students' mathematical knowledge and understanding.
- Good problem solving activities provide an entry point that allows all students to be working on the same problem. The open-ended nature of problem solving allows high achieving students to extend the ideas involved to challenge their greater knowledge and understanding.
- Problem solving develops mathematical power. It gives students the tools to apply their mathematical knowledge to solve hypothetical and real world problems.
- Problem solving is enjoyable. It allows students to work at their own pace and make decisions about the way they explore the problem. Because the focus is not limited to a specific answer students at different ability levels can experience both challenges and successes on the same problem.
- Problem solving better represents the nature of mathematics. Research mathematicians apply this exact approach in their work on a daily basis.
- Once students understand a problem solving approach to maths, a single well framed mathematical problem provides the potential for an extended period of exploration.
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5 Teaching Mathematics Through 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.
Problem solving is not a neat and orderly process. Think about needlework. On the front side, it is neat and perfect and pretty.
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
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?
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 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
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.
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 by Janet Stramel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
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Mathematics through problem solving.
What Is A 'Problem-Solving Approach'?
As the emphasis has shifted from teaching problem solving to teaching via problem solving (Lester, Masingila, Mau, Lambdin, dos Santon and Raymond, 1994), many writers have attempted to clarify what is meant by a problem-solving approach to teaching mathematics. The focus is on teaching mathematical topics through problem-solving contexts and enquiry-oriented environments which are characterised by the teacher 'helping students construct a deep understanding of mathematical ideas and processes by engaging them in doing mathematics: creating, conjecturing, exploring, testing, and verifying' (Lester et al., 1994, p.154). Specific characteristics of a problem-solving approach include:
- interactions between students/students and teacher/students (Van Zoest et al., 1994)
- mathematical dialogue and consensus between students (Van Zoest et al., 1994)
- teachers providing just enough information to establish background/intent of the problem, and students clarifing, interpreting, and attempting to construct one or more solution processes (Cobb et al., 1991)
- teachers accepting right/wrong answers in a non-evaluative way (Cobb et al., 1991)
- teachers guiding, coaching, asking insightful questions and sharing in the process of solving problems (Lester et al., 1994)
- teachers knowing when it is appropriate to intervene, and when to step back and let the pupils make their own way (Lester et al., 1994)
- A further characteristic is that a problem-solving approach can be used to encourage students to make generalisations about rules and concepts, a process which is central to mathematics (Evan and Lappin, 1994).
Schoenfeld (in Olkin and Schoenfeld, 1994, p.43) described the way in which the use of problem solving in his teaching has changed since the 1970s:
My early problem-solving courses focused on problems amenable to solutions by Polya-type heuristics: draw a diagram, examine special cases or analogies, specialize, generalize, and so on. Over the years the courses evolved to the point where they focused less on heuristics per se and more on introducing students to fundamental ideas: the importance of mathematical reasoning and proof..., for example, and of sustained mathematical investigations (where my problems served as starting points for serious explorations, rather than tasks to be completed).
Schoenfeld also suggested that a good problem should be one which can be extended to lead to mathematical explorations and generalisations. He described three characteristics of mathematical thinking:
- valuing the processes of mathematization and abstraction and having the predilection to apply them
- developing competence with the tools of the trade and using those tools in the service of the goal of understanding structure - mathematical sense-making (Schoenfeld, 1994, p.60).
- As Cobb et al. (1991) suggested, the purpose for engaging in problem solving is not just to solve specific problems, but to 'encourage the interiorization and reorganization of the involved schemes as a result of the activity' (p.187). Not only does this approach develop students' confidence in their own ability to think mathematically (Schifter and Fosnot, 1993), it is a vehicle for students to construct, evaluate and refine their own theories about mathematics and the theories of others (NCTM, 1989). Because it has become so predominant a requirement of teaching, it is important to consider the processes themselves in more detail.
The Role of Problem Solving in Teaching Mathematics as a Process
Problem solving is an important component of mathematics education because it is the single vehicle which seems to be able to achieve at school level all three of the values of mathematics listed at the outset of this article: functional, logical and aesthetic. Let us consider how problem solving is a useful medium for each of these.
It has already been pointed out that mathematics is an essential discipline because of its practical role to the individual and society. Through a problem-solving approach, this aspect of mathematics can be developed. Presenting a problem and developing the skills needed to solve that problem is more motivational than teaching the skills without a context. Such motivation gives problem solving special value as a vehicle for learning new concepts and skills or the reinforcement of skills already acquired (Stanic and Kilpatrick, 1989, NCTM, 1989). Approaching mathematics through problem solving can create a context which simulates real life and therefore justifies the mathematics rather than treating it as an end in itself. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM, 1980) recommended that problem solving be the focus of mathematics teaching because, they say, it encompasses skills and functions which are an important part of everyday life. Furthermore it can help people to adapt to changes and unexpected problems in their careers and other aspects of their lives. More recently the Council endorsed this recommendation (NCTM, 1989) with the statement that problem solving should underly all aspects of mathematics teaching in order to give students experience of the power of mathematics in the world around them. They see problem solving as a vehicle for students to construct, evaluate and refine their own theories about mathematics and the theories of others.
According to Resnick (1987) a problem-solving approach contributes to the practical use of mathematics by helping people to develop the facility to be adaptable when, for instance, technology breaks down. It can thus also help people to transfer into new work environments at this time when most are likely to be faced with several career changes during a working lifetime (NCTM, 1989). Resnick expressed the belief that 'school should focus its efforts on preparing people to be good adaptive learners, so that they can perform effectively when situations are unpredictable and task demands change' (p.18). Cockcroft (1982) also advocated problem solving as a means of developing mathematical thinking as a tool for daily living, saying that problem-solving ability lies 'at the heart of mathematics' (p.73) because it is the means by which mathematics can be applied to a variety of unfamiliar situations.
Problem solving is, however, more than a vehicle for teaching and reinforcing mathematical knowledge and helping to meet everyday challenges. It is also a skill which can enhance logical reasoning. Individuals can no longer function optimally in society by just knowing the rules to follow to obtain a correct answer. They also need to be able to decide through a process of logical deduction what algorithm, if any, a situation requires, and sometimes need to be able to develop their own rules in a situation where an algorithm cannot be directly applied. For these reasons problem solving can be developed as a valuable skill in itself, a way of thinking (NCTM, 1989), rather than just as the means to an end of finding the correct answer.
Many writers have emphasised the importance of problem solving as a means of developing the logical thinking aspect of mathematics. 'If education fails to contribute to the development of the intelligence, it is obviously incomplete. Yet intelligence is essentially the ability to solve problems: everyday problems, personal problems ... '(Polya, 1980, p.1). Modern definitions of intelligence (Gardner, 1985) talk about practical intelligence which enables 'the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he or she encounters' (p.60) and also encourages the individual to find or create problems 'thereby laying the groundwork for the acquisition of new knowledge' (p.85). As was pointed out earlier, standard mathematics, with the emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge, does not necessarily cater for these needs. Resnick (1987) described the discrepancies which exist between the algorithmic approaches taught in schools and the 'invented' strategies which most people use in the workforce in order to solve practical problems which do not always fit neatly into a taught algorithm. As she says, most people have developed 'rules of thumb' for calculating, for example, quantities, discounts or the amount of change they should give, and these rarely involve standard algorithms. Training in problem-solving techniques equips people more readily with the ability to adapt to such situations.
A further reason why a problem-solving approach is valuable is as an aesthetic form. Problem solving allows the student to experience a range of emotions associated with various stages in the solution process. Mathematicians who successfully solve problems say that the experience of having done so contributes to an appreciation for the 'power and beauty of mathematics' (NCTM, 1989, p.77), the "joy of banging your head against a mathematical wall, and then discovering that there might be ways of either going around or over that wall" (Olkin and Schoenfeld, 1994, p.43). They also speak of the willingness or even desire to engage with a task for a length of time which causes the task to cease being a 'puzzle' and allows it to become a problem. However, although it is this engagement which initially motivates the solver to pursue a problem, it is still necessary for certain techniques to be available for the involvement to continue successfully. Hence more needs to be understood about what these techniques are and how they can best be made available.
In the past decade it has been suggested that problem-solving techniques can be made available most effectively through making problem solving the focus of the mathematics curriculum. Although mathematical problems have traditionally been a part of the mathematics curriculum, it has been only comparatively recently that problem solving has come to be regarded as an important medium for teaching and learning mathematics (Stanic and Kilpatrick, 1989). In the past problem solving had a place in the mathematics classroom, but it was usually used in a token way as a starting point to obtain a single correct answer, usually by following a single 'correct' procedure. More recently, however, professional organisations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM, 1980 and 1989) have recommended that the mathematics curriculum should be organized around problem solving, focusing on:
- developing skills and the ability to apply these skills to unfamiliar situations
- gathering, organising, interpreting and communicating information
- formulating key questions, analyzing and conceptualizing problems, defining problems and goals, discovering patterns and similarities, seeking out appropriate data, experimenting, transferring skills and strategies to new situations
- developing curiosity, confidence and open-mindedness (NCTM, 1980, pp.2-3).
One of the aims of teaching through problem solving is to encourage students to refine and build onto their own processes over a period of time as their experiences allow them to discard some ideas and become aware of further possibilities (Carpenter, 1989). As well as developing knowledge, the students are also developing an understanding of when it is appropriate to use particular strategies. Through using this approach the emphasis is on making the students more responsible for their own learning rather than letting them feel that the algorithms they use are the inventions of some external and unknown 'expert'. There is considerable importance placed on exploratory activities, observation and discovery, and trial and error. Students need to develop their own theories, test them, test the theories of others, discard them if they are not consistent, and try something else (NCTM, 1989). Students can become even more involved in problem solving by formulating and solving their own problems, or by rewriting problems in their own words in order to facilitate understanding. It is of particular importance to note that they are encouraged to discuss the processes which they are undertaking, in order to improve understanding, gain new insights into the problem and communicate their ideas (Thompson, 1985, Stacey and Groves, 1985).
It has been suggested in this chapter that there are many reasons why a problem-solving approach can contribute significantly to the outcomes of a mathematics education. Not only is it a vehicle for developing logical thinking, it can provide students with a context for learning mathematical knowledge, it can enhance transfer of skills to unfamiliar situations and it is an aesthetic form in itself. A problem-solving approach can provide a vehicle for students to construct their own ideas about mathematics and to take responsibility for their own learning. There is little doubt that the mathematics program can be enhanced by the establishment of an environment in which students are exposed to teaching via problem solving, as opposed to more traditional models of teaching about problem solving. The challenge for teachers, at all levels, is to develop the process of mathematical thinking alongside the knowledge and to seek opportunities to present even routine mathematics tasks in problem-solving contexts.
Carpenter, T. P. (1989). 'Teaching as problem solving'. In R.I.Charles and E.A. Silver (Eds), The Teaching and Assessing of Mathematical Problem Solving, (pp.187-202). USA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Clarke, D. and McDonough, A. (1989). 'The problems of the problem solving classroom', The Australian Mathematics Teacher, 45, 3, 20-24.
Cobb, P., Wood, T. and Yackel, E. (1991). 'A constructivist approach to second grade mathematics'. In von Glaserfield, E. (Ed.), Radical Constructivism in Mathematics Education, pp. 157-176. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Cockcroft, W.H. (Ed.) (1982). Mathematics Counts. Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of Mathematics in Schools, London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
Evan, R. and Lappin, G. (1994). 'Constructing meaningful understanding of mathematics content', in Aichele, D. and Coxford, A. (Eds.) Professional Development for Teachers of Mathematics , pp. 128-143. Reston, Virginia: NCTM.
Gardner, Howard (1985). Frames of Mind. N.Y: Basic Books.
Lester, F.K.Jr., Masingila, J.O., Mau, S.T., Lambdin, D.V., dos Santon, V.M. and Raymond, A.M. (1994). 'Learning how to teach via problem solving'. in Aichele, D. and Coxford, A. (Eds.) Professional Development for Teachers of Mathematics , pp. 152-166. Reston, Virginia: NCTM.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) (1980). An Agenda for Action: Recommendations for School Mathematics of the 1980s, Reston, Virginia: NCTM.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) (1989). Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics, Reston, Virginia: NCTM.
Olkin, I. & Schoenfeld, A. (1994). A discussion of Bruce Reznick's chapter. In A. Schoenfeld (Ed.). Mathematical Thinking and Problem Solving. (pp. 39-51). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Polya, G. (1980). 'On solving mathematical problems in high school'. In S. Krulik (Ed). Problem Solving in School Mathematics, (pp.1-2). Reston, Virginia: NCTM.
Resnick, L. B. (1987). 'Learning in school and out', Educational Researcher, 16, 13-20..
Romberg, T. (1994). Classroom instruction that fosters mathematical thinking and problem solving: connections between theory and practice. In A. Schoenfeld (Ed.). Mathematical Thinking and Problem Solving. (pp. 287-304). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Schifter, D. and Fosnot, C. (1993). Reconstructing Mathematics Education. NY: Teachers College Press.
Schoenfeld, A. (1994). Reflections on doing and teaching mathematics. In A. Schoenfeld (Ed.). Mathematical Thinking and Problem Solving. (pp. 53-69). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Stacey, K. and Groves, S. (1985). Strategies for Problem Solving, Melbourne, Victoria: VICTRACC.
Stanic, G. and Kilpatrick, J. (1989). 'Historical perspectives on problem solving in the mathematics curriculum'. In R.I. Charles and E.A. Silver (Eds), The Teaching and Assessing of Mathematical Problem Solving, (pp.1-22). USA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Swafford, J.O. (1995). 'Teacher preparation'. in Carl, I.M. (Ed.) Prospects for School Mathematics , pp. 157-174. Reston, Virginia: NCTM.
Thompson, P. W. (1985). 'Experience, problem solving, and learning mathematics: considerations in developing mathematics curricula'. In E.A. Silver (Ed.), Teaching and Learning Mathematical Problem Solving: Multiple Research Perspectives, (pp.189-236). Hillsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Van Zoest, L., Jones, G. and Thornton, C. (1994). 'Beliefs about mathematics teaching held by pre-service teachers involved in a first grade mentorship program'. Mathematics Education Research Journal. 6(1): 37-55.
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Why It’s So Important to Learn a Problem-Solving Approach to Mathematics
was invited to the Math Olympiad Summer Program (MOP) in the 10th grade. I went to MOP certain that I must really be good at math. But in my five weeks at MOP, I encountered over sixty problems on various tests and I didn’t solve a single one. That’s right—I was 0-for-60+. I came away no longer confident that I was good at math. I assumed that most of the other kids did better at MOP because they knew more tricks than I did. My formula sheets were pretty thorough, but perhaps they were missing something. By the end of MOP, I had learned a somewhat unsettling truth. The others knew fewer tricks than I did, not more. They didn’t even have formula sheets!
At another contest later that summer, a younger student, Alex, from another school asked me for my formula sheets. In my local and state circles, students’ formula sheets were the source of knowledge, the source of power that fueled the top students and the top schools. They were studied, memorized, revered. But most of all, they were not shared. But when Alex asked for my formula sheets I remembered my experience at MOP and I realized that formula sheets are not really math . Memorizing formulas is no more mathematics than memorizing dates is history or memorizing spelling words is literature. I gave him the formula sheets. (Alex must later have learned also that the formula sheets were fool’s gold—he became a Rhodes scholar.)
The difference between MOP and many of these state and local contests I participated in was the difference between problem solving and what many people call mathematics. For these people, math is a series of tricks to use on a series of specific problems. Trick A is for Problem A, Trick B for Problem B, and so on. In this vein, school can become a routine of learn tricks for a week, use tricks on a test, forget most tricks quickly. The tricks get forgotten quickly primarily because there are so many of them, and also because the students don’t see how these ‘tricks’ are just extensions of a few basic principles.
I had painfully learned at MOP that true mathematics is not a process of memorizing formulas and applying them to problems tailor-made for those formulas. Instead, the successful mathematician possesses fewer tools, but knows how to apply them to a much broader range of problems. We use the term problem solving to distinguish this approach to mathematics from the memorize, use, forget approach.
After MOP I relearned math throughout high school. I was unaware that I was learning much more. When I got to Princeton I enrolled in organic chemistry. There were over 200 students in the course, and we quickly separated into two groups. One group understood that all we would be taught could largely be derived from a very small number of basic principles. We loved the class—it was a year-long exploration of where these fundamental concepts could take us. The other, much larger, group saw each new destination not as the result of a path from the building blocks, but as yet another place whose coordinates had to be memorized if ever they were to visit again. Almost to a student, the difference between those in the happy group and those in the struggling group was how they learned mathematics. The class seemingly involved no math at all, but those who took a memorization approach to math were doomed to do it again in chemistry. The skills the problem solvers developed in math transferred, and these students flourished.
We use math to teach problem solving because it is the most fundamental logical discipline. Not only is it the foundation upon which sciences are built, it is the clearest way to learn and understand how to develop a rigorous logical argument. There are no loopholes, there are no half-truths. The language of mathematics is as precise as it is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (or ‘proven’ and ‘unproven’). Success and failure are immediate and indisputable; there isn’t room for subjectivity. This is not to say that those who cannot do math cannot solve problems. There are many paths to strong problem-solving skills. Mathematics is the shortest .
Problem solving is crucial in mathematics education because it transcends mathematics. By developing problem-solving skills, we learn not only how to tackle math problems, but also how to logically work our way through any problems we may face. The memorizer can only solve problems he has encountered already, but the problem solver can solve problems she’s never seen before. The problem solver is flexible; she can diversify. Above all, she can create .
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