Developing a Culture that Supports Problem Solving in Mathematics
As parents we are our child’s first problem solvers. If our child cries we feed them or change their nappy. If they continue to cry, we rock them or comfort them. We find the solution to their problem. This is natural and vital to their development. As children grow it is important that both parents and teachers relinquish the role as the child’s problem solver and hand the role over to the child. This is not only important in daily routines such as students carrying and unpacking their own school bags and resolving playtime disagreements but also in Mathematics and other learning areas. Learning to become a Problem Solver is natural to their development.
In Mathematics a problem is something that you don’t immediately know how to solve. There may be some thinking involved about how you get started on the path to the solution. It will require thinking, testing out solutions, reaching ‘dead ends’, trying another strategy, adjusting your thinking, trial and error, amongst other strategies. This is challenging for students as they generally can’t reach for a formula to work from. They can’t work out the right answer straight away and/or there may be multiple answers to the question, so therefore they need to test and re-test their method using multiple strategies and then justify their answer.
Not only is it challenging for students but it is also challenging for parents and teachers. Our first instincts are quite often to jump in and rescue the students. Tell them that they’re doing it wrong, give them a formula or tell them what strategy to use. Problem Solving is often looked at as noisy, messy learning which can be really uncomfortable for parents and teachers. But in fact this is when the real learning happens. Learning where students are challenged to think, give things a go, fail and then try again. Learning where students are encouraged to take risks with their learning and understand that making mistakes is ok. Learning where students are encouraged and want to tackle hard problems where they need to discuss their ideas and collaborate with others, justify their thinking and come to resolutions. Learning where students learn to build their resilience. Creating a culture both at home and school that enables students to feel confident to behave in these ways where they feel comfortable to tackle problems independently rather than immediately asking for help is what we want.
At home parents/caregivers can:
- Talk about mathematics in a positive way. A positive attitude about mathematics is infectious.
- Encourage persistence. Some problems take time to solve.
- Encourage your child to experiment with different approaches to mathematics. There is often more than one way to solve a math problem.
- Encourage your child to talk about and show a math problem in a way that makes sense (i.e., draw a picture or use concrete materials).
- When your child is solving math problems ask questions such as: Why did you...? What can you do next? Do you see any patterns? Does the answer make sense? How do you know? This helps to encourage thinking about mathematics.
- Connect math to everyday life and help your child understand how math is a part of their world (i.e. shapes of traffic signs, walking distance to school, telling time).
- Play family math games together that add excitement such as Checkers, Junior Monopoly, Math Bingo and Uno.
Our job as parents and teachers is to guide students through asking questions, not solve the problem for them. Ask yourself who is doing most of the talking, who is doing most of the doing and who is doing most of the thinking. If the answer is you – then who is doing the problem solving?
Scott Megson, Senior Leader