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  • Writer's pictureJessica Kaminski

Problem-Solving Steps that Actually Work

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Whenever our students encounter problems, it can be a tricky situation. On one hand, I get super excited about the idea of my students THINKING about everything they know to solve the problem. I love watching their brains work while they access that filing cabinet in their brain of math information and pull out the information to solve a challenging problem.

On the other hand, that same process can become a brick wall when it becomes too overwhelming. Students can shut down and refuse to move. They can cry and become frustrated. These same students can then begin believing they are just not good at math from this point forward.

That's a lot of pressure from a simple math problem.

If you haven't read Jo Boaler's Mathematical Mindsets, I strongly suggest it as a way to begin helping our students see math learning with a growth mindset. It's a helpful guide in teaching our students and ourselves that knowledge is something that grows and is not fixed. It is based on Carol Dweck's work with Growth Mindsets from Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (Another great read in helping children as a parent, teacher or coach.)

So what do we do? Instead of bombarding our students with several strategies to make problem-solving easier, I think it's important to boil it down to the basics. What strategies can I give my students that help them with all problems? What's something that's easy for them to remember and recall? What's something that would give them confidence moving forward?

Enter in Polya's Problem-Solving Method by George Polya who was known as the father of problem solving. These four steps sum up everything our students need to solve problems successfully. They are easy to remember and easy to implement.

(This post does contain affiliate links.)

  1. Understand the Problem: This is the focus on comprehension. What is the problem asking me to do? What do I know from reading the problem? What can I comprehend?

  2. Plan: This is the time where students think about how they want to move forward. Before solving with mathematics, we want our students to determine what steps they should take.

  3. Solve: This is where students do the math. They follow the steps in their plan and work out the problem.

  4. Look Back: Now we want students to look back and see that their answer makes sense. We want them to check the answer using estimation or even by trying to solve it in another way.

Four steps...that's totally manageable right? I love the simplicity of it all and even find that it carries over to all aspects of our life when solving real-life problems.

Now that students have a way to solve problems, it's time to give them the tools to make a plan that will work. I've been talking about Singapore's heuristics in my Member's Facebook group, and I wanted to share some of those with you. Stay tuned in the next few weeks to learn about the heuristics and how these strategies help students determine a meaningful plan to solve problems.

In the meantime, be sure to grab your problem-solving poster by clicking below!

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