Teaching Mathematics through Problem Solving- An Upside-Down Approach

By inviting children to solve problems in their own ways, we are initiating them into the community of mathematicians who engage in structuring and modeling their “lived worlds” mathematically.

 Fosnot and Jacob, 2007

Teaching mathematics through problem solving requires you to think about the types of tasks you pose to students, how you facilitate discourse in your classroom, and how you support students use of a variety of representations as tools for problem solving, reasoning, and communication.

This is a different approach from “do-as-I-show-you” approach where the teacher shows all the mathematics, demonstrates strategies to solve a problem, and then students just have to practice that exact same skill/strategy, perhaps using a similar problem.

Teaching mathematics through problem solving means that students solve problems to learn new mathematics through real contexts, problems, situations, and strategies and models that allow them to build concept and make connections on their own.

The main difference between the traditional approach “I-do-you-do” and teaching through problem solving, is that the problem is presented at the beginning of the lesson, and the skills, strategies and ideas emerge when students are working on the problem. The teacher listens to students’ responses and examine their work, determining the moment to extend students’ thinking and providing targeted feedback.

Here are the 4 essential moves in a math lesson using a student-centered approach or problem-solving approach:

  1. Number Talk (5-7 min) (Connection)

The mini-lesson starts with a Number Talk. The main purpose of a Number Talk is:

*to build number sense, and 

*to provide opportunities for students to explain their thinking and respond to the mathematical thinking of others.

Please refer to the document Int§roducing Number Talks. Or watch this video with Sherry Parrish to gain understanding about how Number Talks can build fluency with your students.

Here are some videos of Number Talks so you can observe some of the main teaching moves.

The teacher collected all the strategies that students used to count how many pieces of fruit were in the bowl.

The role of the teacher during a number talk is crucial. He/she needs to listen carefully to the way student is explaining his/her reasoning, then use a visual representation of what the student said. Other students also share their strategies, and the teacher represents those strategies as well. Students then can visualize a variety of strategies to solve a problem. They learn how to use numbers flexibly, there is not just one way to solve a problem. When students have a variety if strategies in their math tool box, they can solve any problem, they can make connections with mathematical concepts.

There could be multiple answers for these kind of math talks. Students make sense of their answer and convince the class using their reasoning and math vocabulary.

There are a variety of resources that can be used for Math Talks. Note: the main difference between Number Talks and Math Talks, is that one allows students to use numbers flexibly leading them to fluency, develop number sense, and opportunities to communicate and reason with mathematics; the other allows for communicating and reasoning, building arguments to critique the reasoning of others, the use of logical thinking, and the ability to recognize different attributes to shapes and other figures and make sense of the mathematics involved.

  • 2. Using problems to teach (5-7 min) Mini Lesson
Using engaging problems instead of simple math facts, helps students care about math.

Problems that can serve as effective tasks or activities for students to solve have common features. Use the following points as a guide to assess if the problem/task has the potential to be a genuine problem:

*Problem should be appropriate to their current understanding, and yet still find it challenging and interesting.

*The main focus of the problem should allow students to do the mathematics they need to learn, the emphasis should be on making sense of the problem, and developing the understanding of the mathematics. Any context should not overshadow the mathematics to be learned.

*Problems must require justification, students explain why their solution makes sense. It is not enough when the teacher tells them their answer is correct.

*Ideally, a problem/task should have multiple entries. For example “find 3 factors whose product is 108”, instead of just “multiplying 3 numbers. “

The most important part of the mini-lesson is to avoid teaching tricks or shortcuts, or plain algorithms. Our goal is always to help guide students to understand why the math works (conceptual understanding). And most importantly how different mathematical concepts/ideas are connected! “Math is a connected subject”  Jo Boaler’s video

“Students can learn mathematics through exploring and solving contextual and mathematical problems vs. students can learn to apply mathematics only after they have mastered the basic skills.” By Steve Leinwand author of Principles to Action.

  • 3. Active Engagement (20 min)
4th graders using different tools to solve a multiplication problem.

This is the opportunity for students to work with partners or independently on the problem, making connections of what they know, and trying to use the strategy that makes sense to them. Always making sure to represent the problem with a visual representation. It can be any model that helps student understand what the problem is about.

The job of the teacher during this time, is to walk around asking questions to students to guide them in the right direction, but without telling too much. Allowing students to come up with their own solutions and justifications.

  • Teacher can clarify any questions around the problem, not the solution.
  • Teacher emphasizes reasoning to make sense of the problem/task.
  • Teacher encourages student-student dialogue to help build a sense of self.

Some lessons will include a rich task, or a project based learning, or a number problem (find 3 numbers whose product is 108). There are a variety of learning target tasks to choose from, for each grade level on the Assessment Live Binders website created by Erma Anderson and Project AERO.

Again, keep in mind that some lessons will follow a different structure depending on the learning target for that day. Regardless of instructional design, the teacher should not be doing the thinking, reasoning, and connection building; it must be the students who are engaged in these activities

  • 4. Share (10-12 min) (Link)
Kindergarten student explaining how he classified his shapes.

The most crucial part of the lesson is here. This is where the teaching/learning happens, not only learning from teacher, but learning from peers reaching their unique “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978).

We bring back our students to share how they solved their problem. Sometimes they share with a partner first, to make sure they are using the right vocabulary, and to make sure they make sense of their answer. Then a few of them can share with the rest of the class. But sharing with a partner first is helpful so everyone has the opportunity to share.

“Talk to each other and the teacher about ideas – Why did I choose this method? Does it work in other cases? How is the method similar or different to methods other people used?” Jo Boaler’s article “How Students Should Be Taught Mathematics.”

Students make sense of their solution. The teacher listens and makes connections between different strategies that students are sharing. Teacher paraphrases the strategy student described, perhaps linking it with an efficient strategy.

“It is a misperception that student-centered classrooms don’t include any lecturing. At times it’s essential the teacher share his or her expertise with the larger group. Students could drive the discussion and the teacher guides and facilitates the learning.” Trevor MacKenzie

If the target for today’s lesson was to introduce the use a number line, for example, this is where the teacher will share that strategy as another possible way to solve today’s problem!

This could also be a good time for any formative assessment, using See Saw, using exit slips, or any kind of evidence of what they learned today.


“Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics” Table 2.1 page 26, Van de Walle, Karp, Lovin, Bay-Williams

“Number Talks”, Sherry Parrish

“How Students Should be Taught Mathematics: Reflections from Research and Practice” Jo Boaler

“Erma Anderson, Project AERO Assessments live binders

“Principles to Action”, Steve Leinwand

Turning Teaching Upside Down“, by Cathy Seeley

“Four Inquiry Qualities At The Heart of Student-Centered Teaching”

By Trevor MacKenzie

“The Zone of Proximal Development” Vygotsky, 1978

*** Here is a link to my favorite places to plan Math padlet, you will find a variety of resources, videos, articles, etc. By Caty Romero

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