Teaching Problem-Solving in Math for Elementary Learners

Covid-19 has led to a massive increase in innovation in nearly every arena to help us all make it through the pandemic. Mathematical modeling has been important in forecasting Covid-19 trends, possible outcomes, and predicting the effects of measures to contain the virus.

Do you remember when the goal was to flatten the curve to lessen the load on hospitals and ensure that treatment would be available for the sick? Innovations were used to try to achieve this goal. Both math and science have played important roles in developing these innovations. Yet, many people put more importance on science than math.

One of the practical outcomes of the pandemic has been a push in preparing students to develop their problem-solving skills. Covid-19 has pushed us all to face uncertainty. The best way to prepare for the future is by giving the next generation the tools they’ll need to face novel problems to come.


The Math Problem-Solving Skills Students Need

In our current 21st century, we need to be creative, flexible, and critical thinkers in math. We can help students build the skills they need to increase their mathematical knowledge:

  • Systems thinking
  • Entrepreneurial skills
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Design

In addition to these skills, it’s important for students to develop engineering skills. Engineering is important in contextualizing school mathematics and science learning while also developing an appreciation for and understanding of engineering in the real world. Engineering also improves motivation, problem-solving, and achievement.


How to Build Problem-Solving Skills

Students need to feel a sense of achievement when problem-solving. For this reason, it’s essential to take into account the full range of students' abilities. When designing STEM problems, create problems with low floors and high ceilings. In other words, assure that the project offers various entry points and lines of development so that students of all abilities and levels can succeed.

This allows students of varying mathematical abilities to all learn concepts. Wide walls and conceptual surprises are also important. Allow students to discover solutions themselves rather than spoon-feeding answers.

The productive struggle created when students work hard to solve a problem helps them learn more and retain more. Specifically, “Student learning is greatest in classrooms where the tasks consistently encourage high-level student thinking and reasoning.” (Boaler and Staples 2008; Hiebert and Wearne 1993; Stein and Lane 1996) Problem-solving projects and activities are a great way for teachers to create conditions in which students engage in this high-level thinking and reasoning.

Most importantly, by inviting students to work through problem-solving activities and projects, they’ll become innovative learners. Innovative learners are able to become adaptive problem-solvers, entertain disruption, tackle new and unexpected situations, and see the novel in the ordinary.


3 Projects to Build Problem-Solving Skills

There are many different projects to present to students that will help them develop problem-solving skills. Here are a few you might consider offering your students:


Fancy Feet:
Fancy feet involves statistics and measuring. First, students measure foot sizes of other students, staff, and even family members. Students have to pose statistical questions, collect and analyze data, and communicate their findings. They represent their data in their own ways and are not asked to do so in a specific way which helps students grow creatively. Prior to completing this project, students should have had the opportunity to study graphing, charts, and statistics.

This activity also explores shoe design and manufacturing. Students can design their own shoes and draw on their knowledge from the first activity in which they measured feet. Encourage children to use a variety of materials, explore shoe design throughout history, and consider the shape and size of various feet. As far as the math aspect, you may encourage students to draw models including dimensions or model how they’d make the same shoe for a larger or smaller foot-size.


Mini Golf Challenge:
Focusing on angles, this project requires students to create a design for a mini-golf hole. Students should be encouraged to avoid a straight-line scenario, and make the design a bit more complex. A variety of materials can be used for creating the course, such as wood, Then, students need to determine the angle they’d need to hit the ball with to get a hole-in-one.

Before creating their courses, students may be required to draw a model first, showing the dimensions and angles necessary to achieve the hole-in-one.

This project would also be a great group project, which can help students develop collaboration skills.


Build a Model House:
Invite children to build a model of a simple, one-room house. As a part of the process, ask students to measure the perimeter and area of the house. Then, encourage students to arrange furniture and appliances in the house, considering the space necessary for each.

During this project, students can learn about making blueprints, making a proportional drawing or model, and design.

One option would be to require certain dimensions for the house and provide two measurements for each piece of furniture/appliance. Then, encourage children to problem-solve which size of each piece of furniture to use and how they’ll arrange them in the house.


The Bottom Line on Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

You can't judge a student purely on their math scores because students may perform poorly on exams but do well in other mathematical activities. While math exams may require memorizing procedures, problem-solving is more flexible and open-ended. When problem-solving, students must also show a positive attitude, creative thinking, and systems thinking.

Furthermore, problem-solving projects give students a chance to play a more active role in the educational process. The projects listed above incorporate real-world scenarios, allow students to explore topics on a deeper level, and incorporate many of the characteristics of student-led learning.

By teaching children problem-solving skills, we can set them up for success as they’ll be better prepared to face the future. What problem-solving project will you be teaching this year?

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