It’s easy to give children maths problems to solve; it’s much harder (and very time consuming) to systematically teach problem-solving so children become more competent problem-solvers. Here’s some thoughts on how my teaching of problem-solving has evolved and how I See Problem-Solving fits within this vision.

I have always loved engaging children in rich maths problems. The EEF research (recommendation 3) highlights the importance of engaging children in non-routine maths tasks. However, it also points out that such tasks can create a heavy a cognitive load for many children. Now I try I think more carefully about the sub-skills involved in solving a problem, and build up to the introduction of a problem-solving task using more carefully chosen examples. Consider this question:

Here’s how I built up to using this task. First of all, we clarify how to calculate the sum of four numbers and the difference between the smallest/largest numbers using this question:

Then we model the process of finding all possible answers with this prompt (answers: 5&5, 4&6, 7&3). We also highlight a likely mistake: 8&2 (the difference between the smallest/largest number no longer 4).

Then the final ‘pre-task’ question is introduced, focusing on the most difficult part of the calculation:

Now we get into the main task (sum of 4 numbers is 23, difference between smallest/largest = 4, all numbers different, how many ways?). Where appropriate, children use whiteboards and counters to access the task. When we find the answer 3, 4, 7, 9 we consider whether there is another solution that can be found keeping the 3&9 as the smallest/largest numbers.

As the lesson progresses, we explore systems for finding all possible answers and some children move on to the explain/extend tasks (which are variations on the main task). If you want to use Task 13, check out the free sample resources on this page. The solution to the problem is shown step-by-step by the pre-made worked example.

One little caveat: some children may benefit more from going straight into the question; others may need this extra scaffolding before getting into the main task. As ever, it’s about knowing your children.

There have been lots of great maths problems written. I hope that I See Problem-Solving takes things to the next level by presenting related problems and reasoning tasks in a coherent order, and by clearly representing the mathematics within the tasks.

I also hope that this blog gives food for thought about how to introduce problem-solving tasks so more children experience success. Enjoy using the resources!

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