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TEACHING AND LEARNING

THROUGH PROBLEM
SOLVING
Mike Ollerton relates some problem solving work with primary schools
to DfES support.

The foilo^vin^i piece of wniting emerged trom simultaneously helps develop autonomous decision-
working in four primary schools in the West making and independence ot thought and action.
Midlands, The focus was teaching mathematics Problem solving also provides learners with a
through problem solving. The schools had already purpose or a context tor learning mathematics.
begun to work through materials published on the I-inding all the possibilities and solving logic
DfHS 'standards' site (www.standards.dfes.gov.uk), problems are only subsets of problem solving. I am
so 1 looked at these materials as part of my planning. far more interested in finding problem solving
I noteil the wav problem solving vva,s broken approaches that enable pupils to process, and
down into specific sections by DtES: therefore develop, their mathematical content
finding all the possibilities knowledge.
logic problems For example, a problem such as 'Find all the
finding rules and describing patterns whole number pairs that add together to make 10'
diat^ram problems and visual puz7.1es can lead to pupils \%orking on a \arictv' ot processes
woril problems. and concepts. Some of these are:
Each section contains suggested problems to • ordering information or working systematically
pupils with each of these aspects of problem (processes)
solviiii'. Whilst I wholeheartedly celebrate the • pattern spotting and generality (processes)
'official' recognition of the role of problem solving • determining that all possible answers have been
to support the learning of mathematics, 1 am found; ami proof (processes)
concerned about the prescribed way the materials • recognising commutativity, eg
are to be used, both in lessons and at stall' 6 + 4 = 4-1-6 (concept)
meetings. Howe\'er, as a waj' of bringing problem • practising basic addition (concept)
solving to the fore, tliis initiative is v\orth If tliese pairs of values are then turned into co-
celebrating. In this article I hope to offer construc- ordinate pairs and then graphed, a ran^ of other
tive ways forward and, at the same time, describe concepts can emerge, such as:
an interesting surprise event that occurred in a KSl • working with the co-ordinate system
classroom. • drawing a graph
Problem solving does embrace 'finding all the • the non-commutativity of the system of co-
possibilities', 'logic', etc. I wonder, however, about ordinates (t'xiept when y ^ x)
breaking it down into specific steps or ways of • negative numbers (if one of the pair of numbers
wftrking. Problem solving is rarely a clean, clear sct is > 10)
lit [)nj(.edurcs, othcrwi.se where would the • decimals (if non-integer values are allowed)
'prr>blem' reside? Problem solving, by definition, is • finding the equation of the graph
likfly at times to he messy and ambiguous. When • reco^ising that if the initial value ot 10 is
used eftcctivdy, problem solving becomes the changed to 12 a parallel graph is produced.
\ehicle for developing pupils' mathematics and t hf starting question can be made quite simple

MATHEMATICS TEACHING INCORPORATING MICROMATH 201 / MARCH 2007


and a variety of exten.sion tastvs are pos.siblf; thus, 3 Using 'open' questions
issues of access and depth have to tic considered.
Tticsc depend upon a teacher's \vorldng knowledge I make a distinction here bet\\een open c|uestions
of their class. and open-endetl situations. I define an open
I suggest there are five key criteria involved in question as one that does not lead pupils to
setting up problem solving; situations: guessing a specific answer in the teacher's mind, eg
1 Any protiiem must be aimed at devt'toping 'What is 4X6?' This question can be opened up In
pupils' content knowtedge asking, '1 have multiptietl t\\o numbers together
and the answer is 24. What couki the two numbers
2 Problems net'tl to be accessible, whit.st at the
tie?' 1 define an open-ended situation as a task
same time puzztinp
which has several variables that pupits can choose
3 Use can be made ot more 'open' tjpe questions
to change. K>r example, the 'Worms' prohtem
4 To support (liftcrentiated learning, problems
(ATM, 1983).
must be extenctabtc
5 Independent leaininy is fostered.

1 Developing pupils' content


knowledge
Mathcmatital jiroct'sses tit'tp pupils make sense of
niatlieniatics. Frotileni .solving siniultancouslv
provides pupils with opportunities to develop
knowledge and to practi.se and consotidate this
knowtetlge. There art- many examples where
practice and consoliflation occurs naturally whilst
pupils are working on a problem; tor instance, the
'Palindromes' probteni, which works a.s follows:

Choose a 2-digit number (eg 57), reverse the


number and add (57 + 75 = 1.12). If the
answer is not a palindrome, repeat as before
(132 + 231 = 363).
The answer is now palindromic and it took two
addition calculations for 57 to generate a patin-
dromic answer.
The problem is ... what happens with other
2-digit numbers?

Here pupils are practising addition whitst at the


same time working systematically, classiiying results,
recognising patterns and seeking generality.
In this problem, the variables are the number of
2 Finding accessible and values u.sed, the relative sizes of these values and
puzzling problems the angle that a worm turns through.

Solnng puzzles ami problems is a basic human


charat:tfristic. Using puzzles and problems in the
4 Extension tasks
classroom is an effective way of engaging pupils in Because pupils think and work at diHeront speeds
learning. Access is tlie key to developing confidence, and to different depths, it is important to offer tasks
in order that pupils are prepared to tackte a problem that can be developed at different speetis and depths.
without giving up before they ha\e started. I iiidiiig 1 hus, an extension task to the question of finding
starting points that all pupiLs can initially engage pairs o(" numbers whose product is 24 could be to
with enables them to overcome potential anxieties find pairs of vatues which are not intej^er values. A
about not being abte to uiulcrslarul .somethinij. iurtlier development would hv lo write ttiese pairs
Problems must contain an element of challenge and of values as co-ordinate pairs and observe the shape
pu/T/tcment,, oth('rv\ise pupits are facett with irW\- ofthe graph so formed. Devisint^ ant! providing
ality and a potentiai lack of stimulation. extension tasks is necessary to supptjrt diilerenlialetl

MATHEMATICS TEACHING INCORPORATING MICROMATH 201 / MARCH 2007


teaming, which ejosts in all classrooms, irrespective am certainty no expert at working witli KSl pupits;
of whether groups of pupils have been artificiatly howe\'er, I reckoned that given an at:cessible
tt)nstructetl according to some tenuous notion of prohtem and some discussion 'on the caqiet' at the
atiility, or not. beginning, they would be abte to engage with this
task. The surprise arose as a result of the cla.ss
5 Fostering independent teacher's observation of how one of the so-called
'lower achieving" pupils achieved more than her
learning peers. We briefly tliscussed this and the class teacher
Prnhleni soKiiig is an important aspect of suggested that becau.se her pupils ha<! been inven a
independent tearninj^ aii<l tielps create a shift away task where they could make mistakes and c[uickty
from didactic teaching. The more pupils are move on to find 'correct' solutions, thej- were less
(through the tasks, pu/ztes or probteni.s they engage conscious of needing to produce acn,irate results in
in,) working evermore independentty, ttie more the first instance. I tiave since contemplated this
effective tearners they become. Through probtem hrief discassion and the implications of grouping
sotvintj, we can create a cutture of independence, such voung children tiy notions of ability ... but 1
where pupits are encouraged to make decisions and am not going to get onto thai particutar soap-box
choices about how to .set about a task. Consequently, just now^
the more indepentlent pupils become, the more The kev issue for me is aboul setting up situa-
sell-reliant anil the more capable they become to tions where alt pupits can explore mathematics.
make rational decisions about what they are learning Helping pupils to make sense ofthe strutturea
and how and why they are learning something. within mathematics eg place value, the co-ordinate
svstem, modulo arithmetic or angle/circle
Speed, messiness and structure theorems, requires them to explore situations and
discover mathematical truths. This is alt part of
Three further Lssues are those of speed, messiness sense-making and is a long way from producing
and structure. Atl too often, mathematics is answers to closed questions often contained in an
s>'nonvmous with pupit.s getting an answer a.s quickty exercise from a published scheme. Giving pupils
as possibte. For ttiose who can speedity provide tots ot niulUplic:ation cattutatinn.'; to carrv out may
answers (usually in response to closed questions), (and possibly may not) make them better at multi-
mathematics mav be an okay subject. However, tor plication. However, when |>upits understand both
those who can't or choose not to enter into some what muttiplitation means ant! when it is sensible
kind of race to give an answer, tJie potential for to perform a muttiptication, they become more Reference
ttiem to turn a%vay from mathematics should be a effective mathematicians and not just more effective DipiJrtiir,' I, IiicJ (i2, ret
cause for concern. I believe there arc good reasons muttipiiers.
for .slowing pupils tkmTi, in positive, more reflective
wavs when they are engaging in mathematics; this
Mike Ollerton is a freelance consultant
atso supports students to tiecome more able to
(mikeollerton@btinternet.com).
cope with ambiguit)'
With regard to the mes.siness of mathematics,
again pupils can be too often encouraged to produce
neat and tidy work; recently I saw a pupil make one
smati mistake and because she tlitl not want her
puiiy to be 'spoiled' she asked for another sheet to
work on. hi realitj; probtem solving or thinking DICKTAHTA
something through are rarely neat and tidy
processes; our thoughts 'jump about', sometimes
making intuitive teaps and sometimes getting stuc k Tlie obituary to Dick will appear m the
on the 'easiest' of problems. May is.sut' o\ Mathematics Teaching.
In a KSl class, I offered a problem about
making shapes using a iO 60 90 triangte as the We invite educators whose work
shape 'generator'. Pupils were each given two was influenced by him to wTitc for
different coloured triangles made from card and
fiiture issues.
asked to make other shapes by fitting die triangles
together by matching edges. Having made some The editors email addresses are on page 1.
shapes, they were asked to count ttif number ot
sides ot iheii" new sti.ipe and lo name ttiem. Now, 1

MATHEMATICS TEACHING INCORPORATING MICROMATH 201 / MARCH 2007