1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

How are fourth and fifth grade teachers helping their students make sense of problems? During a recent online course focused on problem solving in elementary classrooms, these thoughts were shared in our discussions. I’ve received permission to quote them and provide them here as starting points we all might use to have a conversation.

Matt says,
My former 5th grade teammate let me hi-jack her Math class so I could try out a Math Forum PoW. The experience was very informative to me as a teacher and very engaging for the students.

The process of “noticing and wondering” seemed to perplex the kids. They weren’t quite sure how to respond. I gave them some examples to get things going but I can see that there is a need to do this on a regular process in order to establish problem solving routines and expectations. Before sending them on their way, we also talked about some different strategies for attacking a problem so they weren’t just left to “figure it out” without some ways in which to think about the problem.

Once students started working on the problem, it was very interesting to see who was comfortable with ambiguity and who really needed a concrete right/wrong answer. They would show me an answer and ask, “Am I right?” My responses were “Tell me your thinking. How did you arrive at your answer? Is there another way to solve the problem to see if you get the same answer?” Some really flourished and others floundered.

After a bit of time, some of the students were arriving at the right answer while others were still trying different strategies. At this point I stopped the students and explained that I didn’t want an answer to the problem but am more interested in how they solved/ tried to solve the problem. This is where I was pleasantly surprised. The students share a variety of ways they decided to approach the problem and all of them were viable/ plausible considering the problem.

After talking about the strategies I told the students that some of them had the right answers and that others still has some thinking to do. Instead of giving them the answer, I told them they had to show me their work and explain their thinking before I told them the answer was correct or not. This really got the students frustrated but excited at the same time. Many of them rushed up to me at the end of the lesson to explain their thought process. It added an edge of anticipation and actually got them excited about Math.