Some Thoughts On…Problem Solving.

Yesterday I tweeted after spending a double lesson with 10A working on problem solving; its generated quite a bit of interest and I’ve been thinking about problem solving in the context of the new curriculum quite a lot recently.

(Photo credit: Dave Gale)

After speaking to a few people in local secondaries I’m quite buoyed that our school has pupils that are well prepared for the new curriculum in terms of resilience and problem solving skills. Our school has done a lot of work over the last few years on growth mindsets and this reflects in the way most of our pupils tackle challenge.

Several years ago we overhauled our Key Stage 3 curriculum and integrated rich tasks and problem solving throughout; each topic is only met once I’m Y7/8 but in a long seven week module allowing time for depth and investigations etc. I guess it’s like mastery-lite. Anyhow, that’s an aside; this blog post is more about how I teach and approach problem solving in my classroom.

I’ve never bought the argument “I don’t have time for problem solving, I haven’t enough time to even teach the curriculum.” nor “I can’t do problem solving with a bottom set”. Problem solving isn’t (always) about super hard problems only accessible to the geekiest of geeks. It’s about teaching pupils skills such as logic, resilience and demonstrating for them the process we go through when solving problems. I said in my tweet that I’d given 10A two periods to tackle some problems and create a well-explained poster of their solutions. I also said that I’d made my own poster. My reason for this was threefold;
a) I’m a geek and wanted to have a go at the problems myself (the class are very independent and self motivated and are well trained in effective group work so there was pretty close to zero input on my part).
b) I like pupils to see me at work; that’s it’s OK to struggle, scratch your head, huff, puff and (the best bit) do a little air punch dance when you make your breakthrough and solve the pesky thing.
c) To show pupils WAGOLL in terms of written Mathematics solutions.

Problem solving needs to be ingrained in our practice so that pupils develop and can apply problem solving skills. Their confidence builds as this exposure becomes more like second nature. I don’t often spend a whole lesson problem solving like this (maybe just once a half term) but I do use them for starter, plenaries and extension work throughout.

So my advice: go forth and problem solve. No excuses.

My top places to start:

The awesome conundrums from CorbettMaths
SolveMyMaths blog problems
NRich problems
UKMT Maths Challenge past papers (I frequently do these with less able pupils – Junior Challenge questions with a Foundation GCSE group for example)
For lower ability pupils there are Primary Maths Challenge resources here and here
Thanks to SolvemyMaths for recommending these problems too

Here’s the work we produced. Their solutions aren’t perfect, some of the methods aren’t the most Mathematical (trial and error?!) and there are some errors – the ratio problem will be my starter next lesson “why is this solution wrong?” but there’s strong skills shown here (the circle questions proved no challenge whatsoever having seen similar style questions when we covered area earlier in the year) and I was super impressed with their can-do attitude.

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