Using the PoWs - Getting Started

  • How to Start Problem Solving in Your Classroom

    By: Annie Fetter

    When you start doing problem solving in your classroom, keep in mind that one goal should be to create an environment that supports problem solving as an extended process. The intent is to engage students in the process, so the short term goal should be process over product. Don’t worry about whether or not your students are solving all the problems correctly or completely. Are your students engaged? Are they all participating? Are they asking questions? Are they talking about math? If so, then the process is happening, and the product will follow. To see what this looked like in one class I taught, see the Teresa's Tiles Example (PDF).

    Forget “The Question”

    To put the focus more on the process, introduce the class to the problem by removing The Question. This can be done as a whole class (which is how I might start) or in small groups. The students must analyze the situation and focus on reading and interpretation instead of coming up with The Answer.

    1.  Give students the text of the problem without the question (the overhead works great for this) or draw the associated picture on the board and tell them only what they need to know to understand the situation.

    2.  Go around the group and have each person list one thing they “notice”. Responses might be as simple as “the lines go up”, or even “there is one blue line and one red line”, or as complex as “the blue line is going up twice as fast as the red line”. Everyone can contribute something, and all the “noticings” are recorded for the group (on the class data pad or whiteboard, etc.) with minimal discussion.

    3.  Ask the students which items on the list they are wondering about (we often use the language of “wondering” instead of asking them what they don’t understand). For example, a student might ask, “I’m wondering how you know that the blue line is going up twice as fast as the red line.” Let the students respond to these questions. “Who would like to try to explain?” If possible or necessary, have more than one student explain each idea so that more student voices get heard.

    4.  At this point, I often ask students to pose a question for the situation presented. You might learn that sometimes math is pretty predictable—in my experience, kids almost always come up with a question that is a lot like the actual question!

    5.  Pose the actual question and talk about it as a group.

      • Have students list the observations they think will be helpful in answering The Question.

      • Let some kids take a stab at answering The Question. Depending on the readiness of your students, you may do this as a whole class or have students work in pairs.

    Remember that the goal is to get your students engaged in the process of thinking mathematically and about how to solve problems. It is not about finding the solution, at least not initially. You will be able to judge the success of this activity as you listen to the buzz in the classroom and see how many more students are participating.

    Other Ideas for Introducing Problems and Problem Solving

    • Read the problem aloud.
    • Talk about any vocabulary that students are wondering about (or that you are pretty sure they haven’t seen recently).
    • Have students retell the problem in their own words. Let them read it again if they’re having trouble remembering.
    • Make lists with questions such as what we know about the problem, what we what to figure out, and what questions we have.
    • Talk about the questions and how we might figure out the answers.
    • Draw pictures or a table or chart if it might help.