Problem solving skills are multi-faceted – a multitude of cogs are required to get the entire working machine of problem solving going. With that in mind, how can educators cultivate an environment that provides many opportunities for problem solving?
Provide real-life contexts
Engage pupils in problem solving by providing them with real-life contexts – problems that are found, or have been found, in the real world. You can also take the opportunity to link problem solving questions to the topic you are focusing on, or the class reader you are using. For World War 2 topics, you might discuss the transportation of evacuees or for nature, you might look at climate change and the problem solving issues real scientists face today. Not only are real-life contexts engaging, they ask pupils to explore the world around them and prepare them for futures in the workforce.
Never be afraid to go back to manipulatives
If you take a mastery approach to the teaching of maths, some pupils may struggle to go beyond the use of manipulatives. However, manipulatives and pictorial representations can be helpful at any learning stage – we draw out diagrams to explain ourselves for a reason. Give all pupils problem solving questions, but differentiate by giving manipulatives to those who may struggle. It’s good to expose all pupils to problem solving questions as a way of raising expectations and providing opportunity to all.
Look for cross-curricular opportunities
Problem solving should appear in all subjects. Computational thinking is one of the main skills gained from coding and programming lessons. If you don’t already teach coding to your pupils, there are resources specifically designed to hone problem solving skills without the need for specialist computing knowledge. E.a.R.L coding robot from Hope Education is one of those resources. Pupils have to use logical thinking to program E.a.R.L to move around the classroom. Problem solving can be incorporated by providing obstacles for the floor robot to move around and a challenge of under so many steps can be given to pupils.
Problem solving can (and should) also appear regularly in P.E. lessons. Group work is especially effective in this setting. Problem solving is made a lot easier with more than one head involved. Give pupils problems that require cooperation, negotiation and creative thinking – all skills needed for great problem solving ability!
Never underestimate the power of language
Commonly, when it comes to problem solving in maths, it is not the maths that is the issue but the words that surround the calculation. It is a great idea to set aide time for constructive discussion about maths and problem solving. Ask pupils about what they already know and what connections they can make when introducing a new topic. Write their answers on the board and add words and phrases yourself, creating a bank of vocabulary. Rich discussions about vocabulary used in problem solving questions and the use of precise mathematical language will help deepen pupils’ conceptual understanding.
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