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5 steps to a problem-solving classroom culture

By Laura Devaney, Managing Editor, @eSN_Laura


Math problems can be engaging and thought-provoking with the
right instructional strategies

Problem solving is one of todays top skills


students who apply problem-solving strategies in the classroom are building
important talents for college and the workforce. The math classroom is one
of the best places to help students build these skills.
Creating a culture of problem solving in a math classroom or in a school
involves prompting students and educators to think a little differently and
systemically.
The world does not need more people who are good at math, said Gerald
Aungst, supervisor of gifted and elementary mathematics in Pennsylvanias
Cheltenhamn Township Schools. What the world needs are more problem
solvers and more innovators.
We want people who are innovators, and dont assume that what people tell
them is impossible is impossible, Aungst said during an edWeb leadership
webinar.
One of the most important mindsets comes in realizing that, even in math,
the context of a statement makes all the difference. Students should
understand more than just the mechanics of math, Aungst saidthey should
investigate the context, the meaning, and how math problems and concepts
work in a particular situation.
The five steps to building a problem-solving culture arent quick fixes or easy
tips, Aungst said, but can be impactful when applied with the bigger picture
of the classroom environment in mind.
Conjecture

Our need to have things explained is as strong an impulse in our kids, and in
us, as being hungry and thirsty, Aungst said. The problem with how we
usually teach math is that we take all that wondering away.
Educators usually teach math by laying out the facts, showing them
processes, and asking students to practice until they achieve mechanical
perfectionstudents have nothing to wonder about.
One element of conjecture is being able to provoke that sense of wonder in
kids, and allowing them to look for explanations and let that drive keep them
engaged, Aungst said.
But it goes deeper than that, he said.
Its about students not just solving problemsits about them looking for
problems, too, he added. Innovators are looking for problems and they try
to solve them before anyone even realizes the problem exists. We need
innovators. Math class is a great place to start doing that.
Educators should strive to avoid ending with the answer. Instead, they should
ask students why they think the answer is what it is, how they arrived at the
answer, if other answers are possible, if other methods of solving are
possible, if students encountered difficulty, and if so, how they overcame it.
Digital tools to support conjecture include:
http://data.gov
http://edte.ch/blog/maths-maps
http://www.geogebra.org

Communication
When students are able to explain their thought processes and
understanding, their own knowledge increases.
One way to promote better math learning is to think of math as if it were a
foreign language.
If all were doing is teaching students how to move the symbols around and
get an answer out of it, without embedding meaning into that, then the
meaning behind the math is completely lost, he said. Learning how to do
math is like learning how to read a foreign language.
Students should be able to explain, in their own words, what numbers and
symbols mean and represent.

Instead of asking students to show their work, ask them to convince


mathematical experts that their solution is a good onestudents understand
what they do, but communicating it to someone else is a challenge.
Digital tools for communication include:
Infographics such as http://piktochart.com and http://infogr.am
Social media (speaking to others about the math students are doing)
YouTube and Vine
Classroom blogs

Collaboration
Problem solving in the real world is nearly always collaborative, Aungst
said. In fact, competition might even serve to dampen innovation. We want
to get our kids working together.
Working together inspires students to consider other points of view and other
approaches to problems. This, in turn, informs, and may change, their
thinking.
Educators could begin with a You, Yall, We approach: present the problem
first, and let students work on that problem individually. Theyll struggle,
Aungst said, but thats OK. Then, move to small-group discussion, before
involving the whole class in the discussion or in solving the problem.
Aungst also recommends the three before me strategy, in which students
consult three other resources or people before bringing an unsolvable
problem to their teacher.
Digital tools for collaboration and building classroom teams include:
Wikis and Google Sites
Google Classroom
Skype and Google Hangouts
Wiggio
Edmodo
Chaos
As odd as it seems, chaos promotes learning and discovery, Aungst said.
What it really is about is the fact that problem solving is messyits not a
linear step-by-step, he said. Real world problem solving is a messy thing.

Students should struggle in productive ways, and if theyre not, instruction


isnt particularly effective. In short, they need cognitive sweat, Aungst said.
Digital tools to support chaos include:
http://enlvm.usa.edu
http://ohiorc.org/for/math/stella
http://mathpickle.com
Celebration
Educators should celebrate students growth, successes, and even their
failures, and what you can learn from their failures, Aungst said.
Sometimes, a catch me if you can strategy works well. Educators tell
students they plan to make mistakes, and students must try to identify those
mistakes. This makes it safe for students to point out errors.
Its really important that you validate effort, and not answers, he said. Its
really important that we recognize that the students who start out as the
smartest at the beginning of the year may not be the smartest at the end of
the year.