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Teaching problem solving skills in the classroom

Problem solving skills are multi-faceted – a multitude of cogs are required to get the entire working machine of problem solving going. With that in mind, how can educators cultivate an environment that improves problem solving skills in the classroom?

In this article, we’ll discuss how you can teach problem solving skills in the classroom and provide a quick overview of its importance to child development.


The importance of problem solving for child development

Our entire lives are filled with problems. The problems themselves are inevitable, but it’s how we approach overcoming them that defines and shapes our futures. Problem solving skills can help to boost:

  • Academic performance
  • Confidence
  • Career and life readiness
  • Social skills

There is ample evidence to support this. In 2016, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) stated that “In the modern world, young people need to be able to engage with and interpret data and information. They need to become flexible thinkers capable of dealing with novel problems and situations and analysing their own and others’ solutions to these.”

A 2016 meta-analysisv of existing research on the relationship between problem solving and academic achievement concluded that “…as from the senior grade of primary school and from earlier periods, development of problem solving abilities is important.”

The logic of having strong problem solving skills is sound. Equipped with what they need to solve problems, pupils grow in confidence. They’ll be more likely to hit a problem head on, and less likely to be negatively affected if they fail. These skills can applied to many aspects of life, stretching well beyond your job. Problem solving skills are also at play during many human interactions and social situations.


Strategies for teaching problem solving in school

  • Be a model problem solver
  • Provide real-life contexts
  • Never be afraid to go back to manipulatives
  • Don’t just give them the answer

Be a model problem solver

If you encounter a problem when going about your day in school, why not get pupils involved in solving it? It’ll enforce the fact that problems are a natural occurrence for us all and give them valuable exposure and practice at solving them.

Get them involved as much as you can. Ask them questions about the problem that seeks their advice. Confidence is a huge part of problem solving. Without it, pupils will be too afraid to speak up to offer solutions they aren’t sure are right. But by seeking it out, you show them that you value their opinion, helping to build that confidence.


Provide real-life contexts

Engage pupils in problem solving by providing them with real-life contexts – problems that are found, or have been found, in the real world. You can also take the opportunity to link problem solving questions to the topic you are focusing on, or the class reader you are using.

For World War 2 topics, you might discuss the transportation of evacuees or for nature, you might look at climate change and the problem-solving issues real scientists face today. Not only are real-life contexts engaging, they ask pupils to explore the world around them and prepare them for futures in the workforce.


Never be afraid to go back to manipulatives

If you take a mastery approach to the teaching of maths, some pupils may struggle to go beyond the use of manipulatives. However, manipulatives and pictorial representations can be helpful at any learning stage – we draw out diagrams to explain ourselves for a reason. Give all pupils problem solving questions but differentiate by giving manipulatives to those who may struggle.

It’s good to expose all pupils to problem solving questions as a way of raising expectations and providing opportunity to all.


Don’t just give them the answer

It’s a tenant of teaching across a vast array of areas, and problem solving skills is no different. Life isn’t about the failures that well inevitably hit, it’s about how you problem solve your way through them. Learning this life lesson early is so important for child development, and teachers are at the very heart of it.

Allow your class to sometimes get it wrong and in the long-term they’ll benefit from knowing that is all part of the process. Don’t just get them the answer, provide them with the tools to approach the problem in the right way and come to the correct solution in their own time.


Look for cross-curricular opportunities

Problem solving should appear in all subjects. Computational thinking is one of the main skills gained from coding and programming lessons. If you don’t already teach coding to your pupils, there are resources specifically designed to hone problem solving skills without the need for specialist computing knowledge. E.a.R.L coding robot is one of those resources. Pupils have to use logical thinking to program E.a.R.L to move around the classroom. Problem solving can be incorporated by providing obstacles for the floor robot to move around and a challenge of under so many steps can be given to pupils.

Problem solving can (and should) also appear regularly in P.E. lessons. Group work is especially effective in this setting. Problem solving is made a lot easier with more than one head involved. Give pupils problems that require cooperation, negotiation and creative thinking – all skills needed for great problem solving ability!


Never underestimate the power of language

Commonly, when it comes to problem solving in maths, it is not the maths that is the issue but the words that surround the calculation. It is a great idea to set aside time for constructive discussion about maths and problem solving.

Ask pupils about what they already know and what connections they can make when introducing a new topic. Write their answers on the board and add words and phrases yourself, creating a bank of vocabulary. Rich discussions about vocabulary used in problem solving questions and the use of precise mathematical language will help deepen pupils’ conceptual understanding.


There is no right or wrong answer

Problem solving can be a trial and error endeavour, but it’s all about correcting the process and thought behind a solution. Reinforcing the idea that making mistakes is ok is a crucial part of develop problem solving skills. For more advanced pupils who are used to getting everything right, this can an especially difficult step to make.

This might be where you can come in with an earlier suggestion. Take a problem on yourself and intentionally get it wrong at first. Show how that can help you to refine your method and get it right next time. Normalising this type of hiccup in the process will give your pupils the confidence to try things when they aren’t sure they will work.


Break it down

As pupils grow older and the problems they face become more complex, it might be helpful for you to help them break it down into more manageable chunks.

Get at the root of the problem, making it a less intimating prospect that’s easier to solve. To gently push them in right direction, ask open questions that aid them to think critically about what they need to do or what they have just done.

Here are a few examples:

  • What do you think will happen if…?
  • What would you do next time if you were to try this again?
  • Why did you decide to do what you just did?
<a href="" target="_self">Talitha McLachlan</a>

Talitha McLachlan

Hope Education writer

Talitha worked as a primary and secondary teacher for 9 years before turning her hand to writing. She is passionate about effective education of children and supporting teachers to do this. In her free time, Talitha enjoys sewing, films, and spending time with her two cats.

18 March 2021

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