Building maths concept and fluency through problem solving

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Passion for teaching numeracy has grown on me ever since I started this journey. Teaching kids to problem solve in maths was always a challenge for me. So I chose this area as my special teaching project, a challenge for me to conquer this year.

The school that I’m teaching in supports inquiry-based approach, based on Vygotsky and Piaget’s theory that students learn by actively constructing their own knowledge. Therefore, we facilitate flexible learning environment where students are encouraged to learn by collaborating with others and arriving at the knowledge by investigating a challenge.

In a traditional learning environment, teachers would write up worded problems on the board and give worksheets for students to practise. Nowadays, this is labelled as lazy practice.

The inquiry question I created to focus my project was “how can I teach problem solving in numeracy using inquiry-based approach.” What I am really interested in is … is inquiry the best approach that can improve problem solving skills? Let’s save this discussion for next time.

Here is my attempt at teaching problem solving through inquiry-based learning:

Problem-solving lesson using STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) 

Our focus for the first three weeks of term 3 has been geometry, which is an important concept to build in students: It helps develop spatial abilities that is connected general mathematical ability (Clement & Sarama, 2011). Power is also our Big Idea for this term (part of Kath Murdoch inspired Challenge Based Learning), which means we have to try and incorporate it into all learning areas. The way we integrated numeracy with the concept of ‘Power’ was by considering why we use certain shapes and the power they have in our daily lives.  

After hours of digging through my brain over a cup of darjeeling tea, I remembered back to good old uni days and my favourite earthly creature, bees!

I posed a challenge of building the strongest and largest beehive using different resources including toothpicks, marshmallows, clays, and straws. Students were grouped into mixed ability groups (making sure introverts were mixed with extroverts). Those who were likely to become disengaged were assigned a leadership role in their group with set responsibilities. They had to collaborate in order to complete this mission due to the heavy workload.

The task was designed so that every student in the team had an important role to play and demanded higher-order thinking. Each resource was assigned a value and they only had $100 to spend. It was a huge challenge for the Grade 2s but they didn’t notice because it was disguised as a shopping game. This was a great opportunity for them to apply our problem solving strategies and steps that we have been developing throughout the year in an authentic context. 

Each material was assigned a value that allowed Grade 2s to practice their number fluency while exploring the concept of money. Cents were eliminated at the beginning to avoid confusion with decimals. The materials were assigned with numbers that students were able to skip count in such as 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10. This allowed multiple entry points for all levels of learners: Students were able to apply skip counting as well as the four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division).

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At the start, students had to carefully plan which shape they will choose to build a beehive. The shapes chosen by the students included square, rectangle, triangle, pentagon, and hexagon. By physically building and connecting them using concrete materials such as toothpicks and clays, students consolidated their understanding their properties by manipulating the edges and vertices (corners).

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At the end of the task, students were able to arrive at the understanding of why hexagon is the most powerful shape to be used as beehives: Hexagon yields the largest possible space for storing their nectar, requires the least amount of resources to build yet happens to be the strongest structure that can be packed tightly without leaving gaps in between.

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Honeybees are excellent mathematicians who know how to perfect their architectural designs. These honeybees developed this mathematical skill through long periods of trial and error by facing challenging problems and applying their strategies.

Most of all, it was difficult to bring the activity to an end as students were highly absorbed in maths disguised as play. It was only during the reflection time when students realised the amount of maths they were doing.

Check out our school blog to see kids reflecting on their learning:

Thank you for reading 🙂







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