What’s the problem?

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By John Dabell

As the National Curriculum states, ‘problem solving involves children developing the skills and strategies that will help them to solve problems faced in learning and life’. Here we explore the strategies that could be used to boost confidence and engage children in their learning

Problems are puzzles or questions that require a solution. They are a feature of everyday life and it is important that we equip children with the skills they need to tackle and solve the problems they will inevitably face, both in their learning and outside of school. Problem solving is an intrinsic part of the curriculum and should be central to children’s learning experience. It not only builds children’s confidence, independence and creativity, but enables them to recognise and apply what they know, and gives meaning and value to real-life situations.

Problems can only be defined by the prior knowledge of the solver – what may be a problem for one person is not necessarily a problem for another. Therefore, for problem solving to be an enjoyable and worthwhile exercise, it is important that problems are pitched at the right level. Children should be challenged but they should also feel that they have a reasonable chance of solving the problem, either by themselves or in a group. The problems in this issue have been chosen specifically for use across Key Stage 2. They can be attacked at various levels so that every child can enjoy and achieve something.

Problems are puzzles or questions that require a solution

Successful problem solving

A hallmark of good problem solvers is their ability to draw on a wide range of generic and specific strategies to guide and inform their thinking. Successful problem solving demands effective working methods and this involves focusing on the process of solving a problem. The process can be divided into three stages: 1. Access, 2. Attack and 3. Assess and Add. This A-frame structure can be used to encourage children to develop a set of procedures in order to move their thinking in a clear direction.

1. Access

Children should begin by exploring the problem so that they fully understand it. Encourage them to ask, ‘What do we know?’ and ‘What do we need to find out?’ They could do this by:

  • making and testing guesses
  • defining terms and relationships
  • disregarding superfluous information
  • extracting relevant information
  • organising the information
  • thinking about a form of recording.

2. Attack

They should then decide on a strategy to solve the problem and how to communicate the solution. They could do this by:

  • being systematic
  • searching for relationships
  • analysing relationships
  • making simplified assumptions
  • identifying properties the answer
  • will have
  • guessing and checking
  • formulating and testing hypotheses
  • trying related problems
  • controlling variables systematically
  • using one solution to find others
  • drawing a sketch, graph or table
  • organising a list
  • working backwards
  • focusing on one aspect of the problem
  • eliminating paths
  • using logic and clues
  • partitioning the problem into cases
  • reformulating the problem
  • developing the recording system
  • making a generalisation.
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