A Problem with Problem Solving?

A common area of focus for schools right now is “problem solving in math”. Math has been identified as a problem in the province, as even though our PISA scores and EQAO assessments are comparatively high, there is a trend of decline in recent years.

I had the pleasure of attending the Ontario Education Research Symposium last week and was present for two presentations by Francesco Avvisati of the OECD, the body who oversees PISA testing. In both presentations the issue of ‘problem solving’ came up. What was most interesting about this was that it was never framed as a math issue. As obvious as it sounds, problem solving is a skill unto itself, not merely something we engage in with math concepts. Many examples were shared of how higher performing jurisdictions focus on problem solving outside of math, and then look to transfer these skills to the math context, but they never look at problem solving just in the context of math. The OECD has also noted that there is no correlation between socio-economic status and the ability to problem solve, but strong correlation between socio-economics and math, another indicator that they are different skills. This all sounds very obvious, but served as a great reminder that in our work with schools who are focusing on problem solving in math, we really are having two very distinct yet related conversations.

These presentations reminded me of the thinking that went in to deciding which apps we would pay for centrally to go on the almost 1000 iPads we distributed to our elementary schools this past September. One of the apps that generated the most discussion was “Where’s my Water?”.

Where's my Water?

Our rationale for including this app was exactly the type of thinking presented by the Dr. Avvisati during his presentation. Students who use this app must solve a problem (the crocodile needs water) by guiding water through a series of obstacles to the shower plumbing. Engaging in this requires students to plan a course of action, respond to the lessons they learn along the way and learn from their mistakes, and, more than anything, persist to reach a solution. They need to come up with often creative and imaginative solutions, to follow a course of action to its conclusion, and to reflect on the efficiency of their choices.

Linking back to the work we are doing in schools, it left me to reflect that when we say “problem solving in math” is an issue, are we saying the main issue is problem solving or is it math? How are the students at solving problems outside the context of math? Is their ability to problem solve holding back their ability to show their mathematical understanding, or vice versa?

Dr. Avvasati shared a story about one of the highest scoring countries they work with. They have developed a period of time every week they call “integrated learning”. During this time students are required to work on projects based on improving their local communities. The conclusion was that this was a major factor in supporting students’ ability to problem solve. They are seeing great success and correlation between the students’ ability to problem solve and their success throughout their learning.

How are you looking at developing problem solving skills with your students? How do you do this both inside and outside the context of mathematics?


Posted on February 26, 2014, in Thoughts and Questions. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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