Helping children to become flexible and efficient problem solvers

Maths again! I adore maths and can’t understand why some children hate it. Yet, helping children to become more flexible and efficient problem solvers could help to unlock their interest and motivation. My last blog focused on placing understanding before method. So how does this lead to flexibility and efficiency? Consider this problem on a Year 6 test sheet: Find 45% of 550. Here are some different methods.
1. Children are taught to chunk, so 10% of 550 is 55, multiplied by 4 (40%)= 220. Then add half of 55 (5%) as 27.5: answer 247.5.
2. Convert 45% to its fraction as 45/100 x 550. Cancel down to 45 x 55 over 10. Multiply 45 x 55 = 2475, then move decimal point one place backwards to divide by 10: answer 247.5.
3. 45% is close to 50%, So 50% of 550 = 275. Subtract 5% from this = 247.5.

We could go on and different minds would produce different combinations of method. Yet, success depends on assembling all of the brain tools for the job – in this case, understanding the connections between fractions, decimals and percentages, and the deeper meanings of each, especially the role of decimal points and zeroes as dividers or multipliers. A problem such as finding 45% lends itself to chunking, as does any percentage ending in 5, and this is what children are taught at first. But 17% or 23% would need a different strategy.

If our goal is to solve problems as quickly and efficiently as possible, especially in exams when speed is important, then flexibility is key. If we want children to become efficient and flexible mathematical problem solvers, we need to give them all of the brain tools and encourage them to explore problems in different ways: to dive down into the deeper meaning of mathematical concepts.

If schools and parents looked at maths from a fresh angle, encouraging learners to explore and find their own methods – more children would eventually become flexible and efficient problem solvers.

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