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Standards for grades Pre-K–12
Number Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Algebra Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Geometry Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Measurement Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Data Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Problem Solving Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Reasoning Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Communication Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Connections Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Representation Standard for grades Pre-K–12
Electronic Examples for grades Pre-K–12

Table of Contents

Problem Solving

Instructional programs from prekindergarten through grade 12 should enable all students to—

Problem solving means engaging in a task for which the solution method is not known in advance. In order to find a solution, students must draw on their knowledge, and through this process, they will often develop new mathematical understandings. Solving problems is not only a goal of learning mathematics but also a major means of doing so. Students should have frequent opportunities to formulate, grapple with, and solve complex problems that require a significant amount of effort and should then be encouraged to reflect on their thinking.

By learning problem solving in mathematics, students should acquire ways of thinking, habits of persistence and curiosity, and confidence in unfamiliar situations that will serve them well outside the mathematics classroom. In everyday life and in the workplace, being a good problem solver can lead to great advantages.

Problem solving is an integral part of all mathematics learning, and so it should not be an isolated part of the mathematics program. Problem solving in mathematics should involve all the five content areas described in these Standards. The contexts of the problems can vary from familiar experiences involving students' lives or the school day to applications involving the sciences or the world of work. Good problems will integrate multiple topics and will involve significant mathematics.

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Build new mathematical knowledge through problem solving

How can problem solving help students learn mathematics? Good problems give students the chance to solidify and extend what they know and, when well chosen, can stimulate mathematics learning. With young children, most mathematical concepts can be introduced through problems that come from their worlds. For example, suppose second graders wanted to find out whether there are more boys or girls in the four second-grade classes. To solve this problem, they would need to learn how to gather information, record data, and accurately add several numbers at a time. In the middle grades, the concept of proportion might be introduced through an investigation in which students are given recipes for punch that call for different amounts of water and juice and are asked to determine which is "fruitier." Since no two recipes yield the same amount of juice, this problem is difficult for students who do not have an understanding of proportion. As various ideas are tried, with good questioning and guidance by a teacher, students eventually converge on using proportions. In high school, many areas of the curriculum can be introduced through problems from mathematical or applications contexts.

Problem solving can and should be used to help students develop fluency with specific skills. For example, consider the following problem, which is adapted from the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM 1989, p. 24):

I have pennies, dimes, and nickels in my pocket. If I take three coins out of my pocket, how much money could I have taken?
p. 52

Knowledge is needed to solve this problem—knowledge of the value of pennies, dimes, and nickels and also some understanding of addition. » Working on this problem offers good practice in addition skills. But the important mathematical goal of this problem—helping students to think systematically about possibilities and to organize and record their thinking—need not wait until students can add fluently.

The teacher's role in choosing worthwhile problems and mathematical tasks is crucial. By analyzing and adapting a problem, anticipating the mathematical ideas that can be brought out by working on the problem, and anticipating students' questions, teachers can decide if particular problems will help to further their mathematical goals for the class. There are many, many problems that are interesting and fun but that may not lead to the development of the mathematical ideas that are important for a class at a particular time. Choosing problems wisely, and using and adapting problems from instructional materials, is a difficult part of teaching mathematics.

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Solve problems that arise in mathematics and in other contexts

People who see the world mathematically are said to have a "mathematical disposition." Good problem solvers tend naturally to analyze situations carefully in mathematical terms and to pose problems based on situations they see. They first consider simple cases before trying something more complicated, yet they will readily consider a more sophisticated analysis. For example, a task for middle-grades students presents data about two ambulance companies and asks which company is more reliable (Balanced Assessment for the Mathematics Curriculum 1999a). A quick answer found by looking at the average time customers had to wait for each company turns out to be misleading. A more careful mathematical analysis involving plotting response times versus time of day reveals a different solution. In this task, a disposition to analyze more deeply leads to a more complete understanding of the situation and a correct solution. Throughout the grades, teachers can help build this disposition by asking questions that help students find the mathematics in their worlds and experiences and by encouraging students to persist with interesting but challenging problems.

Posing problems comes naturally to young children: I wonder how long it would take to count to a million? How many soda cans would it take to fill the school building? Teachers and parents can foster this inclination by helping students make mathematical problems from their worlds. Teachers play an important role in the development of students' problem-solving dispositions by creating and maintaining classroom environments, from prekindergarten on, in which students are encouraged to explore, take risks, share failures and successes, and question one another. In such supportive environments, students develop confidence in their abilities and a willingness to engage in and explore problems, and they will be more likely to pose problems and to persist with challenging problems.

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Apply and adapt a variety of appropriate strategies to solve problems

p. 53

Of the many descriptions of problem-solving strategies, some of the best known can be found in the work of Pólya (1957). Frequently cited » strategies include using diagrams, looking for patterns, listing all possibilities, trying special values or cases, working backward, guessing and checking, creating an equivalent problem, and creating a simpler problem. An obvious question is, How should these strategies be taught? Should they receive explicit attention, and how should they be integrated with the mathematics curriculum? As with any other component of the mathematical tool kit, strategies must receive instructional attention if students are expected to learn them. In the lower grades, teachers can help children express, categorize, and compare their strategies. Opportunities to use strategies must be embedded naturally in the curriculum across the content areas. By the time students reach the middle grades, they should be skilled at recognizing when various strategies are appropriate to use and should be capable of deciding when and how to use them. By high school, students should have access to a wide range of strategies, be able to decide which one to use, and be able to adapt and invent strategies.

Young children's earliest experiences with mathematics come through solving problems. Different strategies are necessary as students experience a wider variety of problems. Students must become aware of these strategies as the need for them arises, and as they are modeled during classroom activities, the teacher should encourage students to take note of them. For example, after a student has shared a solution and how it was obtained, the teacher may identify the strategy by saying, "It sounds like you made an organized list to find the solution. Did anyone solve the problem a different way?" This verbalization helps develop common language and representations and helps other students understand what the first student was doing. Such discussion also suggests that no strategy is learned once and for all; strategies are learned over time, are applied in particular contexts, and become more refined, elaborate, and flexible as they are used in increasingly complex problem situations.

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Monitor and reflect on the process of mathematical problem solving

Effective problem solvers constantly monitor and adjust what they are doing. They make sure they understand the problem. If a problem is written down, they read it carefully; if it is told to them orally, they ask questions until they understand it. Effective problem solvers plan frequently. They periodically take stock of their progress to see whether they seem to be on the right track. If they decide they are not making progress, they stop to consider alternatives and do not hesitate to take a completely different approach. Research (Garofalo and Lester 1985; Schoenfeld 1987) indicates that students' problem-solving failures are often due not to a lack of mathematical knowledge but to the ineffective use of what they do know.

p. 54

Good problem solvers become aware of what they are doing and frequently monitor, or self-assess, their progress or adjust their strategies as they encounter and solve problems (Bransford et al. 1999). Such reflective skills (called metacognition) are much more likely to develop in a classroom environment that supports them. Teachers play an important role in helping to enable the development of these reflective habits of » mind by asking questions such as "Before we go on, are we sure we understand this?" "What are our options?" "Do we have a plan?" "Are we making progress or should we reconsider what we are doing?" "Why do we think this is true?" Such questions help students get in the habit of checking their understanding as they go along. This habit should begin in the lowest grades. As teachers maintain an environment in which the development of understanding is consistently monitored through reflection, students are more likely to learn to take responsibility for reflecting on their work and make the adjustments necessary when solving problems.


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