Ask teachers about problem-solving strategies, and you’re opening a can of worms! Opinions about the “best” way to teach problem-solving are all over the board. And teachers will usually argue for their process quite passionately.
When I first started teaching math over 25 years ago, it was very common to teach “keywords” to help students determine the operation to use when solving a word problem. For example, if you see the word “total” in the problem, you always add. Rather than help students become better problem solvers, the use of keywords actually resulted in students who don’t even feel the need to read and understand the problem–just look for the keywords, pick out the numbers, and do the operation indicated by the keyword.
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Another common strategy for teaching problem-solving is the use of acrostics that students can easily remember to perform the “steps” in problem-solving. CUBES is an example. Just as with keywords, however, students often follow the steps with little understanding. As an example, a common step is to underline or highlight the question. But if you ask students why they are underlining or highlighting the question, they often can’t tell you. The question is, in fact, super important, but they’ve not been told why. They’ve been told to underline the question, so they do.
The problem with both keywords and the rote-step strategies is that both methods try to turn something that is inherently messy into an algorithm! It’s way past time that we leave both methods behind.
First, we need to broaden the definition of problem-solving. Somewhere along the line, problem-solving became synonymous with “word problems.” In reality, it’s so much more. Every one of us solves dozens or hundreds of problems every single day, and most of us haven’t solved a word problem in years. Problem-solving is often described as figuring out what to do when you don’t know what to do. My power went out unexpectedly this morning, and I have work to do. That’s a problem that I had to solve. I had to think about what the problem was, what my options were, and formulate a plan to solve the problem. No keywords. No acrostics. I’m using my phone as a hotspot and hoping my laptop battery doesn’t run out. Problem solved. For now.
If you want to get back to what problem-solving really is, you should consult the work of George Polya. His book, How to Solve It, which was first published in 1945, outlined four principles for problem-solving. The four principles are: understand the problem, devise a plan, carry out the plan, and look back. This document from UC Berkeley’s Mathematics department is a great 4-page overview of Polya’s process. You can probably see that the keyword and rote-steps strategies were likely based on Polya’s method, but it really got out of hand. We need to help students think, not just follow steps.
I created both primary and intermediate posters based on Polya’s principles. You can grab them for free by clicking on the button below the pictures.
I would LOVE to hear your comments about problem-solving!