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Solving The “Problem” Of Problem Solving

by Aviva Dunsiger

Communication in math continues to be a school focus this year, as well as my own focus as part of my Annual Learning Plan. I have chosen this focus because while some of my students are comfortable communicating, I still have a number of students struggling with this. Almost all of these students have language difficulties that also impact on other subject areas. They’re the students that I spend the most time with in a small group setting, and they’re usually the ones that have the most difficulty with the content covered, let alone applying what they’ve learned. I want to encourage rich communication in math, but I don’t know how to do so effectively.

Just over a week ago, I attended a math inservice through our Board, and the keynote speaker was an amazing math educator. She spoke about the need for open-ended questions, so that all students can approach a problem based on their abilities. I love the sound of this. This is what I attempt to do when I create math problems or choose math problems created by others.

When students work together to solve these math problems though, my weakest students find it difficult to “enter” the problem regardless of the multiple entry points.

Here’s how I attempt to solve this problem:  I try to scaffold the learning for them. We look together at key terms in the problem. We discuss what these terms mean. These students try some sample questions together to ensure that they understand the concepts. Then I usually end up asking lots of questions, and eventually, the students begin the problem together.

While this approach addresses the problem, the students often find it hard though to persevere through the issues they encounter and finish the problem together. They get frustrated when they notice that their classmates understand what to do, and they don’t. In the end, the problem solving experience becomes so guided, that I start to question the value of it.

Inservices, like the one I just attended, inspire me to do more problem solving with ALL of my students, but then I get back into the classroom and I question how I can get to ALL of my students.

How do you make math problem solving a positive learning experience for all of your students? What suggestions do you have to help your struggling students succeed at open-ended math problems?


 Aviva Dunsiger taught Junior Kindergarten to Grade 2 for 11 years before moving to Grade 6 this year. She’s passionate about using technology in the classroom to support student learning, and she’s presented on this topic numerous times both online and offline.

She enjoys maintaining her blog, Living Avivaloca: My Many Musings on Life and Learning. Aviva’s reflective writing about her professional practice inspires communication between educators, administrators and parents.  



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