Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Yesterday I received a present. It was sent to me by a friend in Germany. Of course I was excited at the thought of receiving a surprise gift, so I opened it eagerly to see the contents of the wrapper. It was a book in German! Now, I don’t speak a word of German so you can imagine my mixed feelings. I flicked through a few pages and placed the book on a shelf. About an hour later, my husband picked up the book. I told him, ‘don’t bother, it is in German!’ I noticed that he was still looking at the page, he looked up at me and said, “nope, it is not just in German, it is also translated in French and English!” I was surprised as I am usually quite detailed about such things.

I pondered on this all evening and thought about the similarity of what I did with what children tend to do with problem solving. I did not see that each page of the book was translated into the three languages. I had looked at the cover, skimmed over the first few pages and gave up because of my mind-set; I judged the book by its cover. I gave up because the language looked so unfamiliar.

How many times have you taught a lesson on addition and the moment you give the same children a word problem involving addition, they go into brain freeze mode? It is unfamiliar language because it does not look like what they were taught. In schools across the country, we find so many children struggle like this on a daily basis.

Problem solving must be taught from early years. Children are born problem solvers. From the moment they make a move, try to roll over, try to walk, try to feed themselves etc to when they start using building blocks and playing with sand, they are ‘problem solving’.  This needs to continue as they move through primary school. Although every subject has elements of problem solving, Maths naturally lends itself the most to problem solving.

As a teacher, I find that problem solving encourages thinking, flexibility and creativity. It enables children build on and practice prior knowledge.

As children develop, you can explicitly teach them how to be successful at problem solving. Teach them a range of problems that exist. The UK Primary National Strategy (May 2004) suggested that there are five different types of problem:

  • Finding All Possibilities
  • Logic
  • Visual
  • Rules and Patterns
  • Word Problems

Becoming confident and competent with problem solving takes time and teachers can support this by providing the opportunities for problem solving and a structure for problem solving. For example, a popular structure for solving word problems is known as RUCSAC. It stands for

Read the question

Understand the question (underline keywords to show your understanding)

Choose the correct operation (+ x – ÷)

Solve the problem (work out the calculations)

Answer the question (check that the question asked has been answered)

Check your answer (is your answer reasonable, does it make sense)



This is just an idea to add to your tool box of teaching. The bottom line with problem solving is to realise that it is central to the mathematical development of all our learners. We need to give opportunities for it to happen.

Watch this space for more ideas for problem solving.

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