# What IS Problem-Solving?

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 asย figuring out what to do when you don’tย know what to do.ย 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. Grab your copies for free here!

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1. sandra Lambie says:

Do you tutor teachers?

1. Donna Boucher says:

I do professional development for district and schools, and I have online courses.

2. Jessica Patrick says:

You make a great point when you mentioned that teaching students to look for “keywords” is not teaching students to become better problem solvers. I was once guilty of using the CUBES strategy, but have since learned to provide students with opportunity to grapple with solving a problem and not providing them with specified steps to follow.

1. Donna Boucher says:

I think we’ve ALL been there! We learn and we do better. ๐

3. Stephanie Schulz says:

Love this article and believe that we can do so much better as math teachers than just teaching key words! Do you have an editable version of this document? We are wanting to use something similar for our school, but would like to tweak it just a bit.
Thank you!

1. Donna Boucher says:

I’m sorry, but because of the clip art and fonts I use, I am not able to provide an editable version.

4. Rachael Williams says:

Hi Donna!
I am working on my dissertation that focuses on problem-solving. May I use your intermediate poster as a figure, giving credit to you in my citation with your permission, for my section on Polya’s Traditional Problem-Solving Steps?
You laid out the process so succinctly with examples that my research could greatly benefit from this image.
Thank you in advance!

1. Donna Boucher says:

Absolutely! Good luck with your dissertation!