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5 Teaching Mathematics Through Problem Solving

Janet Stramel

Problem Solving

In his book “How to Solve It,” George Pólya (1945) said, “One of the most important tasks of the teacher is to help his students. This task is not quite easy; it demands time, practice, devotion, and sound principles. The student should acquire as much experience of independent work as possible. But if he is left alone with his problem without any help, he may make no progress at all. If the teacher helps too much, nothing is left to the student. The teacher should help, but not too much and not too little, so that the student shall have a reasonable share of the work.” (page 1)

What is a problem  in mathematics? A problem is “any task or activity for which the students have no prescribed or memorized rules or methods, nor is there a perception by students that there is a specific ‘correct’ solution method” (Hiebert, et. al., 1997). Problem solving in mathematics is one of the most important topics to teach; learning to problem solve helps students develop a sense of solving real-life problems and apply mathematics to real world situations. It is also used for a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. Learning “math facts” is not enough; students must also learn how to use these facts to develop their thinking skills.

According to NCTM (2010), the term “problem solving” refers to mathematical tasks that have the potential to provide intellectual challenges for enhancing students’ mathematical understanding and development. When you first hear “problem solving,” what do you think about? Story problems or word problems? Story problems may be limited to and not “problematic” enough. For example, you may ask students to find the area of a rectangle, given the length and width. This type of problem is an exercise in computation and can be completed mindlessly without understanding the concept of area. Worthwhile problems  includes problems that are truly problematic and have the potential to provide contexts for students’ mathematical development.

There are three ways to solve problems: teaching for problem solving, teaching about problem solving, and teaching through problem solving.

Teaching for problem solving begins with learning a skill. For example, students are learning how to multiply a two-digit number by a one-digit number, and the story problems you select are multiplication problems. Be sure when you are teaching for problem solving, you select or develop tasks that can promote the development of mathematical understanding.

Teaching about problem solving begins with suggested strategies to solve a problem. For example, “draw a picture,” “make a table,” etc. You may see posters in teachers’ classrooms of the “Problem Solving Method” such as: 1) Read the problem, 2) Devise a plan, 3) Solve the problem, and 4) Check your work. There is little or no evidence that students’ problem-solving abilities are improved when teaching about problem solving. Students will see a word problem as a separate endeavor and focus on the steps to follow rather than the mathematics. In addition, students will tend to use trial and error instead of focusing on sense making.

Teaching through problem solving  focuses students’ attention on ideas and sense making and develops mathematical practices. Teaching through problem solving also develops a student’s confidence and builds on their strengths. It allows for collaboration among students and engages students in their own learning.

Consider the following worthwhile-problem criteria developed by Lappan and Phillips (1998):

  • The problem has important, useful mathematics embedded in it.
  • The problem requires high-level thinking and problem solving.
  • The problem contributes to the conceptual development of students.
  • The problem creates an opportunity for the teacher to assess what his or her students are learning and where they are experiencing difficulty.
  • The problem can be approached by students in multiple ways using different solution strategies.
  • The problem has various solutions or allows different decisions or positions to be taken and defended.
  • The problem encourages student engagement and discourse.
  • The problem connects to other important mathematical ideas.
  • The problem promotes the skillful use of mathematics.
  • The problem provides an opportunity to practice important skills.

Of course, not every problem will include all of the above. Sometimes, you will choose a problem because your students need an opportunity to practice a certain skill.

Key features of a good mathematics problem includes:

  • It must begin where the students are mathematically.
  • The feature of the problem must be the mathematics that students are to learn.
  • It must require justifications and explanations for both answers and methods of solving.

Needlepoint of cats

Problem solving is not a  neat and orderly process. Think about needlework. On the front side, it is neat and perfect and pretty.

Back of a needlepoint

But look at the b ack.

It is messy and full of knots and loops. Problem solving in mathematics is also like this and we need to help our students be “messy” with problem solving; they need to go through those knots and loops and learn how to solve problems with the teacher’s guidance.

When you teach through problem solving , your students are focused on ideas and sense-making and they develop confidence in mathematics!

Mathematics Tasks and Activities that Promote Teaching through Problem Solving

Teacher teaching a math lesson

Choosing the Right Task

Selecting activities and/or tasks is the most significant decision teachers make that will affect students’ learning. Consider the following questions:

  • Teachers must do the activity first. What is problematic about the activity? What will you need to do BEFORE the activity and AFTER the activity? Additionally, think how your students would do the activity.
  • What mathematical ideas will the activity develop? Are there connections to other related mathematics topics, or other content areas?
  • Can the activity accomplish your learning objective/goals?

problem solving in school mathematics

Low Floor High Ceiling Tasks

By definition, a “ low floor/high ceiling task ” is a mathematical activity where everyone in the group can begin and then work on at their own level of engagement. Low Floor High Ceiling Tasks are activities that everyone can begin and work on based on their own level, and have many possibilities for students to do more challenging mathematics. One gauge of knowing whether an activity is a Low Floor High Ceiling Task is when the work on the problems becomes more important than the answer itself, and leads to rich mathematical discourse [Hover: ways of representing, thinking, talking, agreeing, and disagreeing; the way ideas are exchanged and what the ideas entail; and as being shaped by the tasks in which students engage as well as by the nature of the learning environment].

The strengths of using Low Floor High Ceiling Tasks:

  • Allows students to show what they can do, not what they can’t.
  • Provides differentiation to all students.
  • Promotes a positive classroom environment.
  • Advances a growth mindset in students
  • Aligns with the Standards for Mathematical Practice

Examples of some Low Floor High Ceiling Tasks can be found at the following sites:

  • YouCubed – under grades choose Low Floor High Ceiling
  • NRICH Creating a Low Threshold High Ceiling Classroom
  • Inside Mathematics Problems of the Month

Math in 3-Acts

Math in 3-Acts was developed by Dan Meyer to spark an interest in and engage students in thought-provoking mathematical inquiry. Math in 3-Acts is a whole-group mathematics task consisting of three distinct parts:

Act One is about noticing and wondering. The teacher shares with students an image, video, or other situation that is engaging and perplexing. Students then generate questions about the situation.

In Act Two , the teacher offers some information for the students to use as they find the solutions to the problem.

Act Three is the “reveal.” Students share their thinking as well as their solutions.

“Math in 3 Acts” is a fun way to engage your students, there is a low entry point that gives students confidence, there are multiple paths to a solution, and it encourages students to work in groups to solve the problem. Some examples of Math in 3-Acts can be found at the following websites:

  • Dan Meyer’s Three-Act Math Tasks
  • Graham Fletcher3-Act Tasks ]
  • Math in 3-Acts: Real World Math Problems to Make Math Contextual, Visual and Concrete

Number Talks

Number talks are brief, 5-15 minute discussions that focus on student solutions for a mental math computation problem. Students share their different mental math processes aloud while the teacher records their thinking visually on a chart or board. In addition, students learn from each other’s strategies as they question, critique, or build on the strategies that are shared.. To use a “number talk,” you would include the following steps:

  • The teacher presents a problem for students to solve mentally.
  • Provide adequate “ wait time .”
  • The teacher calls on a students and asks, “What were you thinking?” and “Explain your thinking.”
  • For each student who volunteers to share their strategy, write their thinking on the board. Make sure to accurately record their thinking; do not correct their responses.
  • Invite students to question each other about their strategies, compare and contrast the strategies, and ask for clarification about strategies that are confusing.

“Number Talks” can be used as an introduction, a warm up to a lesson, or an extension. Some examples of Number Talks can be found at the following websites:

  • Inside Mathematics Number Talks
  • Number Talks Build Numerical Reasoning

Light bulb

Saying “This is Easy”

“This is easy.” Three little words that can have a big impact on students. What may be “easy” for one person, may be more “difficult” for someone else. And saying “this is easy” defeats the purpose of a growth mindset classroom, where students are comfortable making mistakes.

When the teacher says, “this is easy,” students may think,

  • “Everyone else understands and I don’t. I can’t do this!”
  • Students may just give up and surrender the mathematics to their classmates.
  • Students may shut down.

Instead, you and your students could say the following:

  • “I think I can do this.”
  • “I have an idea I want to try.”
  • “I’ve seen this kind of problem before.”

Tracy Zager wrote a short article, “This is easy”: The Little Phrase That Causes Big Problems” that can give you more information. Read Tracy Zager’s article here.

Using “Worksheets”

Do you want your students to memorize concepts, or do you want them to understand and apply the mathematics for different situations?

What is a “worksheet” in mathematics? It is a paper and pencil assignment when no other materials are used. A worksheet does not allow your students to use hands-on materials/manipulatives [Hover: physical objects that are used as teaching tools to engage students in the hands-on learning of mathematics]; and worksheets are many times “naked number” with no context. And a worksheet should not be used to enhance a hands-on activity.

Students need time to explore and manipulate materials in order to learn the mathematics concept. Worksheets are just a test of rote memory. Students need to develop those higher-order thinking skills, and worksheets will not allow them to do that.

One productive belief from the NCTM publication, Principles to Action (2014), states, “Students at all grade levels can benefit from the use of physical and virtual manipulative materials to provide visual models of a range of mathematical ideas.”

You may need an “activity sheet,” a “graphic organizer,” etc. as you plan your mathematics activities/lessons, but be sure to include hands-on manipulatives. Using manipulatives can

  • Provide your students a bridge between the concrete and abstract
  • Serve as models that support students’ thinking
  • Provide another representation
  • Support student engagement
  • Give students ownership of their own learning.

Adapted from “ The Top 5 Reasons for Using Manipulatives in the Classroom ”.

any task or activity for which the students have no prescribed or memorized rules or methods, nor is there a perception by students that there is a specific ‘correct’ solution method

should be intriguing and contain a level of challenge that invites speculation and hard work, and directs students to investigate important mathematical ideas and ways of thinking toward the learning

involves teaching a skill so that a student can later solve a story problem

when we teach students how to problem solve

teaching mathematics content through real contexts, problems, situations, and models

a mathematical activity where everyone in the group can begin and then work on at their own level of engagement

20 seconds to 2 minutes for students to make sense of questions

Mathematics Methods for Early Childhood Copyright © 2021 by Janet Stramel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Encyclopedia of Mathematics Education pp 496–501 Cite as

Problem Solving in Mathematics Education

  • Manuel Santos-Trigo 2  
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  • First Online: 01 January 2014

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The core and essence of a problem solving approach to learn mathematics is summarized in the following quotation: Problem solving is a lifetime activity. Experiences in problem solving are always at hand. All other activities are subordinate. Thus, the teaching of problem solving should be continuous. Discussion of problems, proposed solutions, methods of attacking problems, etc. should be considered at all times (Krulik and Rudnick 1993 , p. 9).


What does mathematical problem solving involve.

Mathematical problem solving is a research and practice domain in mathematics education that fosters an inquisitive approach to develop and comprehend mathematical knowledge Santos-Trigo 2007 . As a research domain, the problem-solving agenda includes analyzing cognitive, social, and affective components that influence and shape the learners’ development of problem-solving proficiency. As an instructional approach, the agenda includes the design and implementation of...

  • Problem solving
  • Inquiring approach
  • Modeling activities
  • Representations
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Lester F, Kehle PE (2003) From problem solving to modeling: the evolution of thinking about research on complex mathematical activity. In: Lesh R, Doerr H (eds) Beyond constructivism: models and modeling perspectives on mathematics problem solving, learning and teaching. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, pp 501–518

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Schoenfeld AH (2011) How we think. A theory of goal-oriented decision making and its educational application. Routledge, New York

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Santos-Trigo, M. (2014). Problem Solving in Mathematics Education. In: Lerman, S. (eds) Encyclopedia of Mathematics Education. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4978-8_129

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Problem-Based Instruction in Middle and High School Math

PBI allows students to investigate real-world mathematical questions, increasing engagement with and understanding of course material.

High school student working on math problems

Coach , facilitator , and guide on the side are phrases we have heard being used to describe the teacher’s role in PBI (problem-based instruction). Our idea of PBI is that students are exploring, inquiring, and crafting their own knowledge instead of being spoon-fed information by their teacher. In PBI the teacher moves from being the main disseminator of knowledge to a tool students use to help them guide their own exploration. The teacher must be well prepared and well versed in the content to be able to guide students to appropriate resources, answer questions, and ensure students remain on the correct trajectory with their inquiry. It is the role of the teacher as the content expert to come alongside the students to share resources, encourage, ask probing questions, and ensure students have a supportive environment in which to explore, inquire, and craft their understanding.

The preparations for a teacher in a PBI setting come largely before a PBI lesson is launched in the classroom. Teachers need to prepare resources, craft the driving question or problem scenario, and ensure all project aspects are planned and clear. If connections are being made to community entities or entities outside of the classroom, those arrangements must be secured by the teacher before initiating the PBI so that student experiences are well crafted and flow smoothly. While planning the PBI experience, teachers must also be intimately aware of their students’ learning needs.

Cover art for Implementing Problem-Based Instruction

Students learn at different rates and will seek different levels of content exploration. Scaffolding a lesson to accommodate student learning needs is a necessity in PBI. Teachers must know how to meet individual learning needs and what accommodations will have to be made, and then seek ways to provide support and structure within this framework. Teachers should also be familiar with the instructional learning goals targeted by the PBI lesson to ensure accuracy and adherence to these learning goals throughout the lesson.

Perhaps the most crucial trait of a teacher in a PBI lesson is flexibility. While teachers can plan, plan, and plan, it is almost guaranteed that something will not go as planned. Sometimes students stretch beyond the planned learning target and go deeper with their inquiry than expected. Other times students will hit a roadblock and will require extra support and encouragement. Sometimes schedules change, unexpected events occur, and the pacing for the lesson becomes offset. Teacher flexibility and fluidity will help encourage students to remain focused on their inquiry while knowing their knowledge journey is supported by their teacher.


“When am I ever going to use this?” “Can you just tell me the steps needed to do this?” If you are or ever have been a math teacher, these are questions you have probably heard from students repeatedly and probably have become frustrated by. However, instead of getting frustrated, we should ask ourselves why these questions continue to permeate our mathematics classrooms. The answer? Students are not engaged in authentic mathematics while they are learning, but rather they are following prescribed steps in a rote memorized fashion to reach an answer. True learning is not regurgitating steps but rather seeing the connectedness of content and understanding the practical usability of different solution strategies.

In traditional mathematics classrooms, the teacher stands at the front of the room, demonstrates several step-by-step examples (typically devoid of real-world context) of a new skill, and then releases students to try it independently. As soon as students begin to struggle, the teacher walks them through the problem step-by-step. Students are exposed to word problems and applications at the end of the unit and then only minimally. As a result, students have developed a mathematical identity that defines their role in math class not as learners of mathematics and problem solvers but as performers whose only goal is to get questions right (Boaler, 2022). They disconnect from mathematics because they view it as rote procedures with no interesting or practical application.

PBI also allows students to learn and practice critical 21st-century skills needed to be successful no matter where their path in life and career takes them. Because PBI is collaborative in nature, students are learning to work together in team settings. They are learning to discuss their thoughts and share ideas so that others can understand and engage in dialogue around the shared comments and disseminate their findings/comments/ideas through various verbal, written, or multimedia platforms.

No matter how clearly or repeatedly a teacher explains a mathematical concept or skill, understanding can occur only when students connect new information with previously learned skills. Sure, using traditional methods may support students in memorizing enough steps to allow them to pass their unit assessment or even their end-of-course assessment, but is that truly learning? Rote regurgitation of memorized steps rarely results in long-term learning that translates to solving real-life problems or even to subsequent courses taken during their academic careers. To achieve this level of mathematical understanding, students must be able to engage in authentic mathematical tasks that allow them to collaborate, problem-solve, and problematize. In other words, mathematics is not something students learn by watching; it’s something they learn by doing. One of our students described PBI as a puzzle: “You look for pieces you need when you need them, and then all of a sudden, the whole picture comes together.”

In contrast to student experiences in traditional classrooms, students in a PBI environment feel immersed in their learning. They begin to believe that their voice matters and immediately see the applicability and practicality of what they are learning. Instead of “When am I ever going to use this?” and “Just tell me what the steps are,” students ask questions that prompt exploration, resulting in learning in context. Yes, students are working with manipulatives; yes, sometimes they complete practice worksheets; yes, students are working with their teacher(s) and peer(s), but each activity is carefully crafted toward its purpose relative to the problem/task to be solved/completed. In PBI lessons, there is no longer a feeling that students are learning content because it is in chapter 2 and they just finished chapter 1, so chapter 2 is what comes next . . . instead, the content is explored in context to give meaning and applicability.

Transitioning from a traditional classroom environment to one grounded in PBI can be challenging for students. PBI pushes students to think. PBI pushes students to go beyond what they think they know and to use what they know to “figure out” new concepts. PBI is different from how most students have been learning mathematics for years—it pushes them outside their comfort zone. As a result, students will push back. They will complain.

However, we can tell you from firsthand experience that if teachers remain consistent and support students through this struggle without compromising the foundations that PBI is built upon, students will not only accept this new way of learning mathematics but will thrive because of it. One of our students explained it this way: “This class is different. We don’t just cover content through lectures and you [the teacher] telling us what to do. We explore and discuss ideas, and suddenly I feel like I just know it. I feel like I have learned more in this math class than all of my other math classes combined.”

Reprinted by permission of the Publisher. From Sarah Ferguson and Denise L. Polojac-Chenoweth, Implementing Problem-Based Instruction in Secondary Mathematics Classrooms , New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright © 2024 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

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  • Published: 19 December 2019

Problematizing teaching and learning mathematics as “given” in STEM education

  • Yeping Li 1 &
  • Alan H. Schoenfeld 2  

International Journal of STEM Education volume  6 , Article number:  44 ( 2019 ) Cite this article

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Mathematics is fundamental for many professions, especially science, technology, and engineering. Yet, mathematics is often perceived as difficult and many students leave disciplines in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as a result, closing doors to scientific, engineering, and technological careers. In this editorial, we argue that how mathematics is traditionally viewed as “given” or “fixed” for students’ expected acquisition alienates many students and needs to be problematized. We propose an alternative approach to changes in mathematics education and show how the alternative also applies to STEM education.


Mathematics is commonly perceived to be difficult (e.g., Fritz et al. 2019 ). Moreover, many believe “it is ok—not everyone can be good at math” (Rattan et al. 2012 ). With such perceptions, many students stop studying mathematics soon after it is no longer required of them. Giving up learning mathematics may seem acceptable to those who see mathematics as “optional,” but it is deeply problematic for society as a whole. Mathematics is a gateway to many scientific and technological fields. Leaving it limits students’ opportunities to learn a range of important subjects, thus limiting their future job opportunities and depriving society of a potential pool of quantitatively literate citizens. This situation needs to be changed, especially as we prepare students for the continuously increasing demand for quantitative and computational literacy over the twenty-first century (e.g., Committee on STEM Education 2018 ).

The goal of this editorial is to re-frame issues of change in mathematics education, with connections to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. We are hardly the first to call for such changes; the history of mathematics and philosophy has seen ongoing changes in conceptualization of the discipline, and there have been numerous changes in the past century alone (Schoenfeld 2001 ). Yet changes in practice of how mathematics is viewed, taught, and learned have fallen far short of espoused aspirations. While there has been an increased focus on the processes and practices of mathematics (e.g., problem solving) over the past half century, the vast majority of the emphasis is still on what content should be presented to students. It is thus not surprising that significant progress has not been made.

We propose a two-fold reframing. The first shift is to re-emphasize the nature of mathematics—indeed, all of STEM—as a sense-making activity. Mathematics is typically conceptualized and presented as a body of content to be learned and processes to be engaged in, which can be seen in both the NCTM Standards volumes and the Common Core Standards. Alternatively, we believe that all of the mathematics studied in K-12 can be viewed as the codification of experiences of both making sense and sense making through various practices including problem solving, reasoning, communicating, and mathematical modeling, and that students can and should experience it that way. Indeed, much of the inductive part of mathematics has been lost, and the deductive part is often presented as rote procedures rather than a form of sense making. If we arrange for students to have the right experiences, the formal mathematics can serve to organize and systematize those experiences.

The second shift is suggested by the first, with specific attention to classroom instruction. Whether mathematics or STEM, the main focus of most instruction has been on the content and practices of the discipline, and what the teacher should do in order to make it accessible to students. Instead, we urge that the main focus should be on the student’s experience of the discipline – on the affordances the environment provides the student for disciplinary sense making. We will introduce the Teaching for Robust Understanding (TRU) Framework, which can be used to problematize instruction and guide needed reframing. The first dimension of TRU (The Discipline) focuses on the re-framing discussed above: is the content conceptualized as something rich and connected that can be experienced and codified in meaningful ways? The second dimension (Cognitive Demand) examines opportunities students have to do that kind of sense-making and codification. The third (Equitable Access to Content) examines who has such opportunities: is there equitable access to the core ideas? Dimension 4 (Agency, Ownership, and Identity) asks, do students encounter the discipline in ways that enable them to see themselves as sense makers, building both agency and positive disciplinary identities? Finally, dimension 5 (Formative Assessment) asks, does instruction routinely use formative assessment, allowing student thinking to become public so that instruction can be adjusted accordingly?

We begin with a historical background, briefly discussing different views regarding the nature of mathematics. We then problematize traditional approaches to mathematics teaching and learning. Finally, we discuss possible changes in the context of STEM education.

Knowing the background: the development of conceptions about the nature of mathematics

The scholarly understanding of the nature of mathematics has evolved over its long history (e.g., Devlin 2012 ; Dossey 1992 ). Explicit discussions regarding the nature of mathematics took place among Greek mathematicians from 500 BC to 300 AD (see, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_mathematics ). In contrast to the primarily utilitarian approaches that preceded them, the Greeks pioneered the study of mathematics for its own sake and pursued the development and use of generalized mathematical theories and proofs, especially in geometry and measurement (Boyer 1991 ). Different perspectives about the nature of mathematics were gradually developed during that time. Plato perceived the study of mathematics as pursuing the truth that exists in external world beyond people’s mind. Mathematics was treated as a body of knowledge, in the ideal forms, that exists on its own, which human’s mind may or may not sense. Aristotle, Plato’s student, believed that mathematicians constructed mathematical ideas as a result of the idealization of their experience with objects (Dossey 1992 ). In this perspective, Aristotle emphasized logical reasoning and empirical realization of mathematical objects that are accessible to the human senses. The two schools of thought that evolved from Plato’s and Aristotle’s contrasting conceptions of the nature of mathematics have had important implications for the ensuing development of mathematics as a discipline, and for mathematics education.

Several more schools of thought were developed as mathematicians tackled new problems in mathematics (Dossey 1992 ). Davis and Hersh ( 1980 ) provides an entertaining and informative account of these developments. Three major schools of thought in the early 1900s dealt with paradoxes in the real number system and the theory of sets: (1) logicism, as an outgrowth of the Platonic school, accepts the external existence of mathematics and emphasizes the form rather than the interpretation in a specific setting; (2) intuitionism, as influenced by Aristotle’s ideas, only accepts the mathematics to be developed from the natural numbers forward via “valid” patterns of mental reasoning (not empirical realization in Aristotle’s thought); and (3) formalism, also aligned with Aristotle’s ideas, builds mathematics upon the formal axiomatic structures to free mathematics from contradictions. These three schools of thought are similar in that they view the contents of mathematics as products , but they differ in whether products are viewed as pre-existing or created through experience. The development of these three schools of thought illustrates that the view of mathematics as products has its long history in mathematics.

With the gradual development of school mathematics since 1900s (Stanic and Kilpatrick 1992 ), the conception of the nature of mathematics has increasingly received attention from mathematics educators. Which notion of mathematics mathematics education adopts and uses has a direct and strong impact on the way of school mathematics being presented and approached in education. Although the history of school mathematics is relatively short in comparison with mathematics itself, we can find ample examples about the influence of different views of mathematics on curriculum and classroom instruction in the USA and other education systems (e.g., Dossey et al. 2016 ; Li and Lappan 2014 ; Li, Silver, and Li 2014 ; Stanic and Kilpatrick 1992 ). For instance, the “New Math” movement of 1950s and 1960s used the formalism school of thought as the core of reform efforts. The content was presented in a structural format, using the set theoretic language and conceptions. But the result was not a successful progression toward a school mathematics that is best for students and teachers (e.g., Kline 1973 ). Alternatively, Dossey ( 1992 ), in his review of the nature of mathematics, identified and selected scholars’ works and ideas applicable to both professional mathematicians and mathematics educators (e.g., Davis and Hersh 1980 ; Hersh 1986 ; Tymoczko 1986 ). Those scholars' ideas rested on what professional mathematicians do, not what mathematicians think about what mathematics is. Dossey ( 1992 ) specifically cited Hersh ( 1986 ) to emphasize mathematics is about ideas and should be accepted as a human activity, not strictly governed by any one school of thought.

Devlin ( 2000 ) argued that mathematics is not a single entity but has four different faces: (1) computation, formal reasoning, and problem solving; (2) a way of knowing; (3) a creative medium; and (4) applications. Further, he contended school mathematics typically focuses on the first face, makes some reference to the fourth face, but pays almost no attention to the other two faces. His conception of mathematics assembles ideas from the history of mathematics and observes mathematical activities occurring across different settings.

Our brief review shows that the nature of mathematics can be understood as having different faces, rather than being governed by any single school of thought. At the same time, the ideas of Plato and Aristotle continue to influence the ways that mathematicians, mathematics educators, and the general public perceive mathematics. Despite nearly a half century of process-oriented research (see below), let alone Pólya’s work on problem solving, mathematics is still perceived of largely as products —a body of knowledge as highlighted in the three schools (logicist, intuitionist, formalist) of thought, rather than ideas that call for active thinking and creation. The evolving conceptions about the nature of mathematics in history suggests there is room for us to decide how mathematics can be perceived, rather than being bounded by a pre-occupied notion of mathematics as “given” or “fixed.” Each and every learner can experience mathematics through different practices and “own” mathematics as a human activity.

Problematizing what is important for students to learn in and through mathematics

The evolving conceptions about the nature of mathematics suggest that choices exist when deciding what and how to teach and learn mathematics but they do not specify what and how to make the choice. Decisions require articulating options for conceptions of what is important for students to learn in and through mathematics and evaluating the advantages and drawbacks for the students for each option.

According to Stanic and Kilpatrick ( 1992 ), the history of school mathematics curricula presents two important and real changes over the years: one is at the turn of the twentieth century when school mathematics was reformed as a unified and applied curriculum to accommodate dramatically increased student populations from diverse backgrounds, and the other is the “New Math” movement of the 1950s and 1960s, intended to integrate modern mathematics into school curriculum. The perceived failure of the “New Math” movement led to the “Back to Basics” movement in the 1970s, followed by “Problem Solving” in the 1980s, and then the Curriculum Standards movement in the 1990s and after. The history shows school mathematics curricula have emphasized teaching and learning mathematical knowledge and skills, together with problem solving and some applications of mathematics, a picture that is consistent with what Devlin ( 2000 ) refers to as the 1st face and some reference to the 4th face of mathematics.

Therefore, although there have been reforms in mathematics curriculum and instruction, there are hardly real changes in how mathematics is conceptualized and presented in school education in the USA (Stanic and Kilpatrick 1992 ) and other education systems (e.g., Leung and Li 2010 ; Li and Lappan 2014 ). The dominant conception remains mathematics as products , frequently referring to a body of static knowledge and skills that need to be learned and acquired (Fisher 1990 ). This continues to be largely the case in practice, despite advances in conceptualization (see below).

It should be noted that conceptualizing mathematics as “a body of knowledge and skills” is not wrong, especially with such a long history of knowledge creation and accumulation in mathematics, but it is not adequate for school mathematics nowadays. The set of concepts and procedures, after years of development, exceeds what could be covered in any school curricula. Moreover, this body of knowledge and skills keeps growing, as the product of human intelligence and scholarship in mathematics. Devlin ( 2012 ) pointed out that school mathematics mainly covers what was developed in the Greek mathematics, plus just two further advances from the seventh century: calculus and probability theory. It is no wonder if someone questions the value of learning such a small set of knowledge and skills developed more than a thousand years ago. Meanwhile, this body of knowledge and skills are often abstract, static, and “foreign” to many students and teachers who learned to perceive mathematics as an external entity in existence (Plato’s notion) rather than Aristotelian emphasis on experimentation (Cooney 1987 ). It is thus not surprising for so many students and teachers to claim that mathematics is difficult (e.g., Fritz et al. 2019 ) and “it is ok—not everyone can be good at math” (Rattan et al. 2012 ).

What can be made meaningful should be critically important to those who want to (or need to) learn and teach mathematics. In fact, there is significant evidence that students often try to make sense of mathematics that is “presented” or “given” to them, although they made numerous errors that can be decoded to study their thinking (e.g., Ashlock 2010 ). Indeed, misconceptions are best thought of not as errors that need to be “fixed,” but as plausible abstractions on the basis of what students have learned—i.e., attempts at sense-making (Smith et al. 1993 ). Conceiving mathematics as about “ideas,” we can help students to play, own, experience, and think about some key ideas just like what they do in many other activities, such as game play (Gee 2005 ). Definitions of concepts and formal languages and procedures can be postponed until students are ready to consider why and how they are needed. Mathematics should be taken and accepted as a human activity (Dossey 1992 ), and developing students’ mathematical thinking (about ideas) should be emphasized in learning mathematics itself (Devlin 2012 ) and in STEM (Li et al. 2019a ).

Along with the shift from products to ideas in mathematics, scholars have already focused on how people work with ideas in mathematics. Elaborated in detail by Schoenfeld ( in press ), the revolution began with George Pólya (1887–1985) who had a fundamental interest in having students learn and understand content via problem solving. For Pólya, mathematics was about inquiry, sense making, and understanding how and why mathematical ideas (instead of content as products) fit together the way they do. The call for problem solving in the 1980s in the USA was (at least partially) inspired by Pólya’s ideas after a decade of “back to basics” in the 1970s. It has been recognized since that the practices of mathematics (including problem solving) are every bit as important as the content itself, and the two shouldn’t be separated. In the follow-up standards movement, the content and practices have been the “warp and weave” of the fabric doing mathematics, as articulated in Principles and Standards for School Standards (NCTM 2000 ). There were five content standards and five process standards (i.e., problem solving, reasoning, connecting, communicating, representing). It is widely acknowledged, also in the Common Core State Standards in the USA (CCSSI 2010 ), that both content and processes/practices are essential and they form the base for next steps.

Problematizing how mathematics is taught and learned, with connections to STEM education

How the ways that mathematics is often taught cause concerns.

Conceiving mathematics as a body of facts and procedures to be “mastered” has been long-standing in mathematics education practice, and it often results in students’ learning by rote memorization. For example, Schoenfeld ( 1988 ) provided a detailed account of the disasters of a “well-taught” mathematics course, documenting a 10th-grade geometry class taught by a confident and experienced teacher. The teacher taught and managed his class well, and his students also did well on standardized examinations, which focused on content and procedures. At the same time, however, Schoenfeld pointed out that the students developed counterproductive views of mathematics. Although the students developed some level of proficiency in content and procedures, they gained (or were reinforced in) the kinds of beliefs about mathematics as being fragmented and disconnected. Schoenfeld argued that the course led students to develop a robust and counterproductive set of beliefs about the nature of geometry.

Seeking possible origins about students’ counterproductive beliefs about mathematics from mathematics instruction motivated Schoenfeld’s study (Schoenfeld 1988 ). Such an intuitive motivation is also evident in other studies. Keitel ( 2006 ) compared the lessons of two teachers (T1 and T2) in Germany who taught their classes very differently. T1 regularly taught the class emphasizing routine individual practice and memorization of specific algebraic rules. T1 emphasized the importance of such practices for test taking, and the students followed his instruction. Even when T1 one day introduced a non-routine problem that connects algebra and geometry, the overwhelming emphasis on mastering routines and algorithms seemed to overshadow in dealing such a non-routine problem. In contrast, T2’s teaching emphasized students’ initiatives and collaboration, although T2 also used formal routine tasks. At the end, students in T2’s class reported positively about their experience, enjoyed working together, and appreciated the opportunities of thinking mathematically. Studies by Schoenfeld ( 1988 ) and Keitel ( 2006 ) indicate how students’ experience in mathematics classes influences their perceptions of mathematics and also imply the importance of learning about teachers’ perceptions of mathematics that likely guide their instructional practice (Cooney 1987 ).

Rattan et al. ( 2012 ) found that teachers with different perceptions of mathematics teach differently. Specifically, Rattan et al. looked at these teachers holding an entity (fixed) theory of mathematics intelligence (G1) versus incremental theory (G2). Through their studies, Rattan and colleagues found that G1 teachers more readily judged students to have low ability, comforted students for low mathematical ability, and used “kind” strategies (e.g., assigning less homework) unlikely to promote their engagement with the field than G2 teachers. Students who received comfort-oriented feedback perceived their teachers’ entity theory and low expectations and reported lowered motivation and expectations for their own performance. The results suggest how teachers’ inadequate perceptions of mathematics and beliefs about the nature of students’ mathematical intelligence contributed to low achievement, diminished self-esteem and viewed mathematics is only a set of static facts and procedures. Further, the results suggest that how mathematics is taught influences more than students’ proficiency with mathematics content in a class. Sun ( 2018 ) made a similar argument after synthesizing existing literature and analyzing classroom observation data.

Based on the 2012 US national survey of science and mathematics education conducted by Horizon Research, Banilower et al. ( 2013 ) reported that a vast majority of mathematics teachers, from 81% at the high school level to 90% at the elementary level, believe that students should be given definitions of new vocabulary at the beginning of instruction on a mathematical idea. Also, many teachers believe that they should explain an idea to students before having them consider evidence for it and that hands-on activities should be used primarily to reinforce ideas students have already learned. The report suggests many teachers emphasized pedagogical practices of “give” and “present,” perhaps influenced by conceptions of mathematics that are more Platonic than Aristotelian, similar to what was reported about teachers’ practices more than two decades ago (Cooney 1987 ).

How to change?

Given that the evidence demonstrates a compelling case for changing how mathematics is taught, we turn our attention to suggesting how to realize this transformation. Changing how mathematics is taught and learned is not a new endeavor for both mathematics educators and mathematicians (e.g., Li, Silver, and Li 2014 ; Schoenfeld in press ). For example, the “Moore Method,” developed and used by Robert Lee Moore (a famous topologist) in the early twentieth century, shifted instruction from teacher-centered lecturing to student-centered mathematical development (Coppin et al. 2009 ). In its purest form, students were presented with mathematical definitions and asked to develop and/or prove theorems from them after class, without reading mathematics books or using other resources. When students returned to the class, they were asked to prove a theorem. As a result, students developed the mathematics themselves, instead of the instructor presenting the proofs and doing the mathematics for students. The method has had its own success in producing many great mathematicians; however, the high-pressure environment also drowned many students who might have been successful otherwise (Schoenfeld in press ).

Although the “Moore Method” was used primarily in advanced mathematics courses at the post-secondary level, it illustrates how a different conception of mathematics led to a different instructional approach in which students developed mathematics. However, it might be the opposite end of a spectrum, in comparison to approaches that present mathematics to students in accommodating and easy-to-digest ways that can be as much easy as possible. Neither extreme is a good option for K-12 students. Again, it becomes important for us to consider options that can support the value of learning mathematics.

Our discussion in the previous section highlights the importance of taking mathematics as a human activity, ensuring it is meaningful to students, and developing students’ mathematical thinking about ideas, rather than simply absorbing a set of static and disconnected knowledge and skills. We call for a shift in teaching mathematics based on Platonic conceptions to approaches based on more of Aristotelian conceptions. In essence, Plato emphasized ideal forms of mathematical objects, perhaps inaccessible through people’s sense making efforts. As a result, learners lack ownership of the ideal forms of mathematical objects, because mathematical objects cannot and should not be created by human reasoning. In contrast, Aristotle emphasized that mathematical objects are developed through logic reasoning and empirical realization. In other words, mathematical objects exist only when they can be sensed and verified by people's efforts. This differs from Plato’s passive perspective, highlights human ownership of mathematical ideas and encourages people to make mathematics make sense, termed as making sense by McCallum ( 2018 ). Aristotelian conceptions view mathematics as objects that learners can actively develop and structure as mathematically meaningful, which is more in line with what research mathematicians do. McCallum ( 2018 ) argued that both sense-making and making-sense stances are needed for a complete view of mathematics and learning, recognizing that not attending to both stances carries risks. “Just as it is a risk of the sense-making stance that the mathematics gets ignored, it is a risk of the making-sense stance that the sense-maker gets ignored.” (McCallum 2018 ).

In addition, there is the issue of personal identity: if students come to avoid mathematics because they are uncomfortable with it (in fact, mathematics anxiety has become a widespread problem for all ages across the globe, see Luttenberger et al. 2018 ) then mathematics instruction has failed them, regardless of test scores.

In the following, we discuss sense-making and making-sense stances first with specific examples from mathematics. Then, we discuss connections to STEM education.

Sense making is much more than the acquisition of knowledge and skills

Sense making has long been emphasized in mathematics education community. William A. Brownell is a well-known, early 20 th century scholar who advocated the value of sense making in the learning of mathematics. For example, Brownell ( 1945 ) discussed how arithmetic can and should be taught and learned not only as procedures, but also as a meaningful system of thinking. He shared many examples like the following division,

Brownell suggested to ask questions: what does the 5 of 576 mean? Why must 57 be the first partial dividend? Do you actually divide 8 into 57, or into 57…’s? etc., instead of simply letting students memorize how to carry out the procedure. What Brownell advocated has been commonly accepted and emphasized in mathematics education nowadays as sense making (e.g., Schoenfeld 1992 ).

There can be different ways of sense making of the same computation. As an example, the sense making process for the above long division can come out with mental math as: I am looking to see how close I can get to 570 with multiples of 80; 7 multiples of 80 gives me 560, which is close. Of course, given base 10 notation, that’s the same as 8 multiples of 70, which is why the 7 goes over the 57. And when I subtract 560, there are 16 left over, so that’s another 2 8 s. Such a sense-making process also works, as finding the answer (quotient, k ) of 576 ÷ 8 is the same operation as to find k that satisfies 576 = k × 8. In mathematics, division and multiplication are alternate but equivalent ways of doing the same operation.

To help students build numerical reasoning and make sense of computations, many teachers use number talks in their classrooms for students to practice and share these mental math and computation strategies (e.g., Parrish 2011 ). In fact, new terms are being created and used in mathematics education about sense making, such as number sense (e.g., Sowder 1992 ) and symbol sense (Arcavi, 1994 ). Some instructional programs, such as Cognitively Guided Instruction (see, e.g., Carpenter et al., 1997 , 1998 ), make sense making the core of instructional activities. We argue that such activities should be more widely adopted.

Making sense makes the other side of mathematical practice visible, and values idea development and ownership

The making-sense stance, as termed by McCallum ( 2018 ), is not commonly practiced as it is pertinent to expert mathematician’s practices. Where sense making (as discussed previously) emphasizes the process of making sense of what is being learned, making sense emphasizes the process of making mathematics make sense. Making sense highlights the importance for students to experience mathematics through creating, designing, developing, and connecting mathematical ideas. As an example, for the above division computation, 8 \( \overline{\Big)576\ } \) , students may wonder why the division procedure is performed from left to right, which is different from the other operations (addition, subtraction, and multiplication) that are all performed from right to left. In fact, students can be encouraged to explore if the division can also be performed from right to left (i.e., starting from the one’s place). They may discover, with possible support from the teacher, that the division can be done in this way. However, once the division is moved to the high-value places, it will require the process to go back down to the low-value places for completion. In other words, the division process starting from the low-value place would require repeated processes of returning to the low-value places; as a result, it is inefficient. As mathematical procedure is designed to improve efficiency, the division procedure is thus set to be carried out from the high-value place to low-value place (i.e., from left to right). Students who work this out experience mathematics more deeply than the sense-making described by Brownell ( 1945 ).

There are plenty of making-sense opportunities in classroom instruction. For example, kindergarten children are often given opportunities to play with manipulatives like cube trains and snub cubes, to explore and learn about patterns, numbers, and measurement through various connections. The recording of such activities typically results in numerical expressions or operations of these connections. In addition, such activities can also serve as a context to encourage students to design and create a way of “recording” these connections directly with a drawing line next to the connected train cubes. Such a design activity will help students to develop the concept of a number line that includes the original/starting point, unit, and direction (i.e., making mathematics make sense), instead of introducing the number line to students as a mathematical concept being “given” years later.

Learning how to provide students with opportunities to develop mathematics may occur with experience. Huang et al. ( 2010 ) found that expert and novice teachers in China both valued students’ mastering of mathematical knowledge and skills and their development in mathematical thinking methods and abilities. However, novice teachers were particularly concerned about the effectiveness of their guidance, in contrast to expert teachers who emphasized the development of students’ mathematical thinking and higher-order thinking abilities and properly dealing with important and difficult content points. The results suggest that teachers’ perceptions and pedagogical practices can change and improve over time. However, it may be worth asking if support for teacher development would accelerate the process.

Connecting changes in mathematics and STEM education

Although it is commonly acknowledged that mathematics is foundational to STEM, mathematics is being related to STEM education at a distance in practice and also in scholarship development (English 2016 , see additional notes at the end of this editorial). Holding the conception of mathematics as products does not support integrating mathematics with other STEM disciplines, as mathematics can be perceived simply as a set of tools for these disciplines. At the same time, mathematics and science have often proceeded along parallel tracks, with mathematics focused on “problem solving” while science has focused on “inquiry.” To better connect mathematics and other disciplines in STEM, we should focus on ideas and thinking development in mathematics (Li et al. 2019a ), unifying instruction from the student perspective (the Teaching for Robust Understanding framework, discussed below).

Emphasizing both sense making and making sense in mathematics education opens opportunities for connections with similar practices in other STEM disciplines. For example, sense making is very much emphasized in science education (Hogan 2019 ; Kapon 2017 ; Odden and Russ 2019 ), often combined with reflections in engineering (Kilgore et al. 2013 ; Turns et al. 2014 ), and also in the context of using technology (e.g., Antonietti and Cantoia 2000 ; Dick and Hollebrands 2011 ). Science is fundamentally about discovery and understanding of the natural world. This notion provides a natural link to mathematical modeling (e.g., Burkhardt 1981 ). Beyond that, in science education, sense making places a heavy focus on the construction and evaluation of explanation (Kapon 2017 ), and can even be defined as a process of constructing an explanation to resolve a perceived gap or conflict in knowledge (Odden and Russ 2019 ). Design and making play vital roles in engineering and technology education (Dym et al., 2005 ), as is student reflection on these experiences (e.g., Turns et al. 2014 ). Indeed, STEM disciplines share the same conceptual process of sense making as learners, individually or in a group, actively engage with the natural or man-made world, explore it, and then develop, test, refine, and use ideas together with specific explanation. If mathematics was conceived as an “empirical” discipline, connections with other STEM disciplines would be strengthened. In philosophical terms, Lakatos ( 1976 ) made similar claims Footnote 1 .

Similar to the emphasis on sense making placed in the Mathematics Curriculum Standards (e.g., NCTM, 1989 , 2000 ), Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013 ) prompted a shift in science education away from simply knowing science content and procedures to practicing and using science, together with engineering, to make sense of the world and create the future. In a review, Fitzgerald and Palincsar ( 2019 ) concluded sense making is a productive lens for investigating and characterizing great teaching across multiple disciplines.

Mathematics has stronger linkages to creation and design than traditionally imagined. Therefore, its connections to engineering and technology could be much stronger. However, the deep-rooted conception of mathematics as products has traditionally discouraged students and teachers from considering and valuing design and design thinking (Li et al. 2019b ). Conceiving mathematics as making sense should help promote conceptual changes in mathematical practice to value idea generation and design activity. Connections generated from such a shift will support teaching and learning not only in individual STEM disciplines, but also in integrated STEM education.

At the same time, although STEM education as a commonly recognized field does not have a long history (Li 2014 , 2018a ), its rapid development can help introduce ideas for exploring how mathematics can be taught and learned. For example, the concept of projects is common in engineering professional practice, and the project-based learning (PjBL) as an instructional approach is a key component in some engineering programs (e.g., Berger 2016 ; de los Ríos et al. 2010 ; Mills and Treagust 2003 ). de los Ríos et al. ( 2010 ) highlighted three main advantages of PjBL: (1) development in technical, personal, and contextual competences; (2) students’ engagement with real problems from professional contexts; and (3) collaborative learning facilitated through the integration of teaching and research. Such advantages are important for students’ learning of mathematics and are aligned well with efforts to develop 21 st century skills, including problem solving, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Design-based learning (DBL) is another instructional approach commonly used in engineering and technology fields. Gómez Puente et al. ( 2013 ) conducted a sampled review and concluded that DBL projects consist of open-ended, hands-on, authentic, and multidisciplinary design tasks. Teachers using DBL facilitate both the process for students to gain domain-specific knowledge and thinking activities to generate innovative solutions. Such features could be adapted for mathematics education, especially integrated STEM education, in concert with design and design thinking. In addition to a few examples discussed above about making sense in mathematics, there is a growing body of publications developed by and for mathematics teachers with specific examples of investigations, design projects, and instructional activities associated with STEM (Li et al. 2019b ).

A framework for helping students to gain important experiences in and through mathematics, as connected to other disciplines in STEM

For observing and evaluating classroom instruction in general and mathematics classroom instruction in specific, there are several widely used frameworks and rubrics available. However, a trial use of selected frameworks with sampled mathematics classroom instruction episodes suggested their disagreements on what counts as high-quality instruction, especially with aspects on disciplinary thinking being valued and relevant classroom practices (Schoenfeld et al. 2018 ). The results suggest the importance of choice making, when we consider a framework in discussing and evaluating teaching practices.

Our discussion above highlights the importance of shifting away from viewing mathematics simply as a set of static knowledge and skills, to focusing on ideas and thinking development in teaching and learning mathematics. Further discussion of several aspects of changes specifies the needs of developing and using practices associated with sense making, making sense, and connecting mathematics and STEM education for changes.

To support effective mathematics instruction, we propose the use of the Teaching for Robust Understanding (TRU) framework to help characterize powerful learning environments. With the conception of mathematics as “empirical” and a focus on students’ experience, then the focus of instruction should also be changed. We argue that shift is from instruction conceived as “what should the teacher do” to instruction conceived as “what mathematical experiences should students have in order for them to develop into powerful thinkers?” It is the shift in the frame of TRU that makes it so powerful and pertinent for all these proposed changes. Moreover, TRU only uses a small number of actionable dimensions after distilling the literature on teaching for robust or powerful understanding. That makes TRU a practical mechanism for problematizing instruction.

Figure 1 presents the TRU Math framework that identifies five key dimensions along which powerful classroom environments can be characterized: the mathematics; cognitive demand; equitable access; agency, ownership, and identity; and formative assessment. These five dimensions were distilled from an extensive literature review, thus capturing what the literature considers to be essential. They were tested against classroom videotapes and data on student performance, and the results indicated that classrooms that did well on the TRU dimensions produced students who did correspondingly well on tests of mathematical knowledge, thinking, and problem solving (e.g., Schoenfeld 2014 , 2019 ). In brief, the argument regarding the importance of the five dimensions of TRU Math is as follows. First, the quality of the mathematics discussed (dimension 1) is critical. What individual students learn is unlikely to be richer than what they experience in the classroom. Whether individual students’ understanding rises to the level of what is discussed/presented in the classroom depends on other factors, which are captured in the remaining four dimensions. For example, you surely have had the experience, at a lecture, of hearing beautiful content presented, and then not being able to do any of the assigned problems! The remaining four dimensions capture aspects needed to support the development of all students with respect to sense making, making sense, ownership, and feedback loop. Dimension 2: Cognitive Demand. Are students engaged in sense making and making sense? Are they engaged in “productive struggle”? Dimension 3: Equitable Access. Are all students fully engaged with the central content and practices of the domain so that every student can profit from it? Dimension 4: Agency, Ownership, and Identity. Do all students have opportunities to develop idea ownership and mathematical agency? Dimension 5: Formative Assessment. Are students encouraged and supported to share their thinking with a meaningful feedback loop for instructional adjustment and improvement?

figure 1

The TRU Mathematics Framework: The five dimensions of powerful mathematics classrooms

The first key point about TRU is that students learn more in classrooms that are powerful along the five TRU dimensions. Second, the shift of attention from the teacher to the environment is fundamentally important. The key question is not “Is the teacher doing particular things to support learning?”; instead, it is, “Are students experiencing instruction so that it is conducive to their growth as mathematical thinkers and learners?” Third, the framework is not prescriptive; it respects teacher autonomy. There are many ways to be an excellent teacher. The question is, Does the learning environment created by the teacher provide each student rich opportunities along the five dimensions of the framework? Specifically, in describing the dimensions of powerful instruction, the framework serves to problematize instruction. Asking “how am I doing along each dimension; how can I improve?” can lead to richer instruction without prescribing or imposing a particular style or particular norms on teachers.

Extending to STEM education

Now, we suggest the following. If you teach biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, or any other STEM field, replace “mathematics” in Fig. 1 with your discipline. The first dimension is about rich content and practices in your field. And the remaining four dimensions are about necessary aspects of your students’ classroom engagement with the discipline. Practices associated with sense making, making sense, and STEM education are all be reflected in these five dimensions, with central attention on students’ experience in such classroom environments. Although the TRU framework was originally developed for characterizing effective mathematics classroom environments, it has been carefully framed in a way that is applicable to many different disciplines (Schoenfeld 2014 ). Our discussion above already specified why sense making, making sense, and specific instructional approaches like PjBL and DBL are shared across disciplines in STEM education. Thus, the TRU framework is applicable to other STEM disciplines. The natural analogue of the TRU framework for any field is given in Fig. 2 .

figure 2

The domain-general version of the TRU framework

Both the San Francisco Unified School District and the Chicago Public Schools adopted the TRU Math framework and found results within mathematics sufficiently promising that they expanded their efforts to all subject areas for professional development and instruction, using the domain-general TRU framework. Work is still in its early stages. Current efforts might be best conceptualized as a laboratory for exploration rather than a promissory note for improvement across all different disciplines. It will take time to accumulate data to show effectiveness. For further information about the domain-general TRU framework and tools for professional development are available at the TRU framework website, https://truframework.org/

Finally, as a framework, TRU is not a set of specific tools or guidelines, although it can be used to guide their development. To help lead our discussion to something more practical, we can use the framework to check and identify aspects that are typically under-emphasized and move them to center stage in order to improve classroom instruction. Specifically, the following is a list of sample under-emphasized norms and practices that can be identified (Schoenfeld in press ).

Establishing a climate of inquiry, in which mathematics is experienced as a discipline of exploration and sense making.

Developing students’ ownership of ideas through the process of developing, sharing, refining, and using ideas; concepts and language can come later.

Focusing on big ideas, and not losing the forest for the trees.

Making student thinking central to classroom discourse.

Ensuring that classroom discourse is respectful and inviting.

Where to start? Begin by problematizing teaching and the nature of learning environments

Here we start by stipulating that STEM disciplines as practiced, are living, breathing fields of inquiry. Knowledge is important; ideas are important; practices are important. The list given above applied to all STEM disciplines, not just mathematics.

The issue, then, is developing teacher capacity to craft environments that have the properties described immediately above. Here we share some thoughts, and the topic itself can well be discussed extensively in another paper. To make changes in teaching, it should start with assessing and changing teaching practice itself (Hiebert and Morris 2012 ). Opening up teachers’ perceptions of teaching practices should not be done by telling teachers what to do!—the same rules of learning apply to teachers as they apply to students. Learning environments for teachers should offer teachers the same opportunities for rich engagement, challenge, equitable access, and ownership as we hope students will experience (Schoenfeld 2015 ). Working together with teachers to study and reflect on their teaching practices in light of the TRU framework, we can help teachers to find out what their students are experiencing and why changes are needed. The framework can also help guide teachers to learn what changes would be needed, and to try out changes to learn how their students’ learning may differ. It is this iterative and concrete process that can hopefully help shift participating teachers’ perceptions of mathematics. Many tools for problematizing teaching are available at the TRU web site (see https://truframework.org/ ). If teachers can work together with a focus on selected lessons like what teachers often do in China, the process would help form a school-based learning community that can contribute to not only participating teachers’ practice change but also their expertise improvement (Huang et al. 2011 ; Li and Huang 2013 ).

As reported before (Li 2018b ), publications in the International Journal of STEM Education show a mix of individual-disciplinary and multidisciplinary education in STEM over the past several years. Although one journal’s publications are limited in its scope of providing a picture about the scholarship development related to mathematics and STEM education, it can allow us to get a sense of related development.

If taking a closer look at the journal’s publications over the past three years from 2016 to 2018, we found that the number of articles published with a clear focus on mathematics is relatively small: three (out of 21) in 2016, six (out of 34) in 2017, and five (out of 56) in 2018. At the same time, we should point out that these publications from 2016 to 2018 seem to reflect a trend, over these three years, of moving toward issues that can go beyond mathematics itself, as what was noted before (Li 2018b ). Specifically, for these three articles published in 2016, they are all about mathematics education at either elementary school (Ding 2016 ; Zhao et al. 2016 ) or university levels (Schoenfeld et al. 2016 ). Out of the six published in 2017, three are on mathematics education (Hagman et al. 2017 ; Keller et al. 2017 ; Ulrich and Wilkins 2017 ) and the other three on either teacher professional development (Borko et al. 2017 ; Jacobs et al. 2017 ) or connection with engineering (Jehopio and Wesonga 2017 ). For the five published in 2018, two are on mathematics education (Beumann and Wegner 2018 ; Wilkins and Norton 2018 ) and the other three have close association with other disciplines in STEM (Blotnicky et al. 2018 ; Hayward and Laursen 2018 ; Nye et al. 2018 ). This trend likely reflects a growing interest, with close connection to mathematics, in both mathematics education community and a broader STEM education community of developing and sharing multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary scholarship.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable

Interestingly, Lakatos was advised by both Popper and Pólya—his ideas being in some ways a unification of Pólya’s emphasis on mathematics as an empirical discipline and Popper’s reflections on the nature of the scientific endeavor.

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Original research article, mathematical problem-solving through cooperative learning—the importance of peer acceptance and friendships.


  • 1 Department of Education, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden
  • 2 Department of Education, Culture and Communication, Malardalen University, Vasteras, Sweden
  • 3 School of Natural Sciences, Technology and Environmental Studies, Sodertorn University, Huddinge, Sweden
  • 4 Faculty of Education, Gothenburg University, Gothenburg, Sweden

Mathematical problem-solving constitutes an important area of mathematics instruction, and there is a need for research on instructional approaches supporting student learning in this area. This study aims to contribute to previous research by studying the effects of an instructional approach of cooperative learning on students’ mathematical problem-solving in heterogeneous classrooms in grade five, in which students with special needs are educated alongside with their peers. The intervention combined a cooperative learning approach with instruction in problem-solving strategies including mathematical models of multiplication/division, proportionality, and geometry. The teachers in the experimental group received training in cooperative learning and mathematical problem-solving, and implemented the intervention for 15 weeks. The teachers in the control group received training in mathematical problem-solving and provided instruction as they would usually. Students (269 in the intervention and 312 in the control group) participated in tests of mathematical problem-solving in the areas of multiplication/division, proportionality, and geometry before and after the intervention. The results revealed significant effects of the intervention on student performance in overall problem-solving and problem-solving in geometry. The students who received higher scores on social acceptance and friendships for the pre-test also received higher scores on the selected tests of mathematical problem-solving. Thus, the cooperative learning approach may lead to gains in mathematical problem-solving in heterogeneous classrooms, but social acceptance and friendships may also greatly impact students’ results.


The research on instruction in mathematical problem-solving has progressed considerably during recent decades. Yet, there is still a need to advance our knowledge on how teachers can support their students in carrying out this complex activity ( Lester and Cai, 2016 ). Results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that only 53% of students from the participating countries could solve problems requiring more than direct inference and using representations from different information sources ( OECD, 2019 ). In addition, OECD (2019) reported a large variation in achievement with regard to students’ diverse backgrounds. Thus, there is a need for instructional approaches to promote students’ problem-solving in mathematics, especially in heterogeneous classrooms in which students with diverse backgrounds and needs are educated together. Small group instructional approaches have been suggested as important to promote learning of low-achieving students and students with special needs ( Kunsch et al., 2007 ). One such approach is cooperative learning (CL), which involves structured collaboration in heterogeneous groups, guided by five principles to enhance group cohesion ( Johnson et al., 1993 ; Johnson et al., 2009 ; Gillies, 2016 ). While CL has been well-researched in whole classroom approaches ( Capar and Tarim, 2015 ), few studies of the approach exist with regard to students with special educational needs (SEN; McMaster and Fuchs, 2002 ). This study contributes to previous research by studying the effects of the CL approach on students’ mathematical problem-solving in heterogeneous classrooms, in which students with special needs are educated alongside with their peers.

Group collaboration through the CL approach is structured in accordance with five principles of collaboration: positive interdependence, individual accountability, explicit instruction in social skills, promotive interaction, and group processing ( Johnson et al., 1993 ). First, the group tasks need to be structured so that all group members feel dependent on each other in the completion of the task, thus promoting positive interdependence. Second, for individual accountability, the teacher needs to assure that each group member feels responsible for his or her share of work, by providing opportunities for individual reports or evaluations. Third, the students need explicit instruction in social skills that are necessary for collaboration. Fourth, the tasks and seat arrangements should be designed to promote interaction among group members. Fifth, time needs to be allocated to group processing, through which group members can evaluate their collaborative work to plan future actions. Using these principles for cooperation leads to gains in mathematics, according to Capar and Tarim (2015) , who conducted a meta-analysis on studies of cooperative learning and mathematics, and found an increase of .59 on students’ mathematics achievement scores in general. However, the number of reviewed studies was limited, and researchers suggested a need for more research. In the current study, we focused on the effect of CL approach in a specific area of mathematics: problem-solving.

Mathematical problem-solving is a central area of mathematics instruction, constituting an important part of preparing students to function in modern society ( Gravemeijer et al., 2017 ). In fact, problem-solving instruction creates opportunities for students to apply their knowledge of mathematical concepts, integrate and connect isolated pieces of mathematical knowledge, and attain a deeper conceptual understanding of mathematics as a subject ( Lester and Cai, 2016 ). Some researchers suggest that mathematics itself is a science of problem-solving and of developing theories and methods for problem-solving ( Hamilton, 2007 ; Davydov, 2008 ).

Problem-solving processes have been studied from different perspectives ( Lesh and Zawojewski, 2007 ). Problem-solving heuristics Pólya, (1948) has largely influenced our perceptions of problem-solving, including four principles: understanding the problem, devising a plan, carrying out the plan, and looking back and reflecting upon the suggested solution. Schoenfield, (2016) suggested the use of specific problem-solving strategies for different types of problems, which take into consideration metacognitive processes and students’ beliefs about problem-solving. Further, models and modelling perspectives on mathematics ( Lesh and Doerr, 2003 ; Lesh and Zawojewski, 2007 ) emphasize the importance of engaging students in model-eliciting activities in which problem situations are interpreted mathematically, as students make connections between problem information and knowledge of mathematical operations, patterns, and rules ( Mousoulides et al., 2010 ; Stohlmann and Albarracín, 2016 ).

Not all students, however, find it easy to solve complex mathematical problems. Students may experience difficulties in identifying solution-relevant elements in a problem or visualizing appropriate solution to a problem situation. Furthermore, students may need help recognizing the underlying model in problems. For example, in two studies by Degrande et al. (2016) , students in grades four to six were presented with mathematical problems in the context of proportional reasoning. The authors found that the students, when presented with a word problem, could not identify an underlying model, but rather focused on superficial characteristics of the problem. Although the students in the study showed more success when presented with a problem formulated in symbols, the authors pointed out a need for activities that help students distinguish between different proportional problem types. Furthermore, students exhibiting specific learning difficulties may need additional support in both general problem-solving strategies ( Lein et al., 2020 ; Montague et al., 2014 ) and specific strategies pertaining to underlying models in problems. The CL intervention in the present study focused on supporting students in problem-solving, through instruction in problem-solving principles ( Pólya, 1948 ), specifically applied to three models of mathematical problem-solving—multiplication/division, geometry, and proportionality.

Students’ problem-solving may be enhanced through participation in small group discussions. In a small group setting, all the students have the opportunity to explain their solutions, clarify their thinking, and enhance understanding of a problem at hand ( Yackel et al., 1991 ; Webb and Mastergeorge, 2003 ). In fact, small group instruction promotes students’ learning in mathematics by providing students with opportunities to use language for reasoning and conceptual understanding ( Mercer and Sams, 2006 ), to exchange different representations of the problem at hand ( Fujita et al., 2019 ), and to become aware of and understand groupmates’ perspectives in thinking ( Kazak et al., 2015 ). These opportunities for learning are created through dialogic spaces characterized by openness to each other’s perspectives and solutions to mathematical problems ( Wegerif, 2011 ).

However, group collaboration is not only associated with positive experiences. In fact, studies show that some students may not be given equal opportunities to voice their opinions, due to academic status differences ( Langer-Osuna, 2016 ). Indeed, problem-solvers struggling with complex tasks may experience negative emotions, leading to uncertainty of not knowing the definite answer, which places demands on peer support ( Jordan and McDaniel, 2014 ; Hannula, 2015 ). Thus, especially in heterogeneous groups, students may need additional support to promote group interaction. Therefore, in this study, we used a cooperative learning approach, which, in contrast to collaborative learning approaches, puts greater focus on supporting group cohesion through instruction in social skills and time for reflection on group work ( Davidson and Major, 2014 ).

Although cooperative learning approach is intended to promote cohesion and peer acceptance in heterogeneous groups ( Rzoska and Ward, 1991 ), previous studies indicate that challenges in group dynamics may lead to unequal participation ( Mulryan, 1992 ; Cohen, 1994 ). Peer-learning behaviours may impact students’ problem-solving ( Hwang and Hu, 2013 ) and working in groups with peers who are seen as friends may enhance students’ motivation to learn mathematics ( Deacon and Edwards, 2012 ). With the importance of peer support in mind, this study set out to investigate whether the results of the intervention using the CL approach are associated with students’ peer acceptance and friendships.

The Present Study

In previous research, the CL approach has shown to be a promising approach in teaching and learning mathematics ( Capar and Tarim, 2015 ), but fewer studies have been conducted in whole-class approaches in general and students with SEN in particular ( McMaster and Fuchs, 2002 ). This study aims to contribute to previous research by investigating the effect of CL intervention on students’ mathematical problem-solving in grade 5. With regard to the complexity of mathematical problem-solving ( Lesh and Zawojewski, 2007 ; Degrande et al., 2016 ; Stohlmann and Albarracín, 2016 ), the CL approach in this study was combined with problem-solving principles pertaining to three underlying models of problem-solving—multiplication/division, geometry, and proportionality. Furthermore, considering the importance of peer support in problem-solving in small groups ( Mulryan, 1992 ; Cohen, 1994 ; Hwang and Hu, 2013 ), the study investigated how peer acceptance and friendships were associated with the effect of the CL approach on students’ problem-solving abilities. The study aimed to find answers to the following research questions:

a) What is the effect of CL approach on students’ problem-solving in mathematics?

b) Are social acceptance and friendship associated with the effect of CL on students’ problem-solving in mathematics?


The participants were 958 students in grade 5 and their teachers. According to power analyses prior to the start of the study, 1,020 students and 51 classes were required, with an expected effect size of 0.30 and power of 80%, provided that there are 20 students per class and intraclass correlation is 0.10. An invitation to participate in the project was sent to teachers in five municipalities via e-mail. Furthermore, the information was posted on the website of Uppsala university and distributed via Facebook interest groups. As shown in Figure 1 , teachers of 1,165 students agreed to participate in the study, but informed consent was obtained only for 958 students (463 in the intervention and 495 in the control group). Further attrition occurred at pre- and post-measurement, resulting in 581 students’ tests as a basis for analyses (269 in the intervention and 312 in the control group). Fewer students (n = 493) were finally included in the analyses of the association of students’ social acceptance and friendships and the effect of CL on students’ mathematical problem-solving (219 in the intervention and 274 in the control group). The reasons for attrition included teacher drop out due to sick leave or personal circumstances (two teachers in the control group and five teachers in the intervention group). Furthermore, some students were sick on the day of data collection and some teachers did not send the test results to the researchers.


FIGURE 1 . Flow chart for participants included in data collection and data analysis.

As seen in Table 1 , classes in both intervention and control groups included 27 students on average. For 75% of the classes, there were 33–36% of students with SEN. In Sweden, no formal medical diagnosis is required for the identification of students with SEN. It is teachers and school welfare teams who decide students’ need for extra adaptations or special support ( Swedish National Educational Agency, 2014 ). The information on individual students’ type of SEN could not be obtained due to regulations on the protection of information about individuals ( SFS 2009 ). Therefore, the information on the number of students with SEN on class level was obtained through teacher reports.


TABLE 1 . Background characteristics of classes and teachers in intervention and control groups.


The intervention using the CL approach lasted for 15 weeks and the teachers worked with the CL approach three to four lessons per week. First, the teachers participated in two-days training on the CL approach, using an especially elaborated CL manual ( Klang et al., 2018 ). The training focused on the five principles of the CL approach (positive interdependence, individual accountability, explicit instruction in social skills, promotive interaction, and group processing). Following the training, the teachers introduced the CL approach in their classes and focused on group-building activities for 7 weeks. Then, 2 days of training were provided to teachers, in which the CL approach was embedded in activities in mathematical problem-solving and reading comprehension. Educational materials containing mathematical problems in the areas of multiplication and division, geometry, and proportionality were distributed to the teachers ( Karlsson and Kilborn, 2018a ). In addition to the specific problems, adapted for the CL approach, the educational materials contained guidance for the teachers, in which problem-solving principles ( Pólya, 1948 ) were presented as steps in problem-solving. Following the training, the teachers applied the CL approach in mathematical problem-solving lessons for 8 weeks.

Solving a problem is a matter of goal-oriented reasoning, starting from the understanding of the problem to devising its solution by using known mathematical models. This presupposes that the current problem is chosen from a known context ( Stillman et al., 2008 ; Zawojewski, 2010 ). This differs from the problem-solving of the textbooks, which is based on an aim to train already known formulas and procedures ( Hamilton, 2007 ). Moreover, it is important that students learn modelling according to their current abilities and conditions ( Russel, 1991 ).

In order to create similar conditions in the experiment group and the control group, the teachers were supposed to use the same educational material ( Karlsson and Kilborn, 2018a ; Karlsson and Kilborn, 2018b ), written in light of the specified view of problem-solving. The educational material is divided into three areas—multiplication/division, geometry, and proportionality—and begins with a short teachers’ guide, where a view of problem solving is presented, which is based on the work of Polya (1948) and Lester and Cai (2016) . The tasks are constructed in such a way that conceptual knowledge was in focus, not formulas and procedural knowledge.

Implementation of the Intervention

To ensure the implementation of the intervention, the researchers visited each teachers’ classroom twice during the two phases of the intervention period, as described above. During each visit, the researchers observed the lesson, using a checklist comprising the five principles of the CL approach. After the lesson, the researchers gave written and oral feedback to each teacher. As seen in Table 1 , in 18 of the 23 classes, the teachers implemented the intervention in accordance with the principles of CL. In addition, the teachers were asked to report on the use of the CL approach in their teaching and the use of problem-solving activities embedding CL during the intervention period. As shown in Table 1 , teachers in only 11 of 23 classes reported using the CL approach and problem-solving activities embedded in the CL approach at least once a week.

Control Group

The teachers in the control group received 2 days of instruction in enhancing students’ problem-solving and reading comprehension. The teachers were also supported with educational materials including mathematical problems Karlsson and Kilborn (2018b) and problem-solving principles ( Pólya, 1948 ). However, none of the activities during training or in educational materials included the CL approach. As seen in Table 1 , only 10 of 25 teachers reported devoting at least one lesson per week to mathematical problem-solving.

Tests of Mathematical Problem-Solving

Tests of mathematical problem-solving were administered before and after the intervention, which lasted for 15 weeks. The tests were focused on the models of multiplication/division, geometry, and proportionality. The three models were chosen based on the syllabus of the subject of mathematics in grades 4 to 6 in the Swedish National Curriculum ( Swedish National Educational Agency, 2018 ). In addition, the intention was to create a variation of types of problems to solve. For each of these three models, there were two tests, a pre-test and a post-test. Each test contained three tasks with increasing difficulty ( Supplementary Appendix SA ).

The tests of multiplication and division (Ma1) were chosen from different contexts and began with a one-step problem, while the following two tasks were multi-step problems. Concerning multiplication, many students in grade 5 still understand multiplication as repeated addition, causing significant problems, as this conception is not applicable to multiplication beyond natural numbers ( Verschaffel et al., 2007 ). This might be a hindrance in developing multiplicative reasoning ( Barmby et al., 2009 ). The multi-step problems in this study were constructed to support the students in multiplicative reasoning.

Concerning the geometry tests (Ma2), it was important to consider a paradigm shift concerning geometry in education that occurred in the mid-20th century, when strict Euclidean geometry gave way to other aspects of geometry like symmetry, transformation, and patterns. van Hiele (1986) prepared a new taxonomy for geometry in five steps, from a visual to a logical level. Therefore, in the tests there was a focus on properties of quadrangles and triangles, and how to determine areas by reorganising figures into new patterns. This means that structure was more important than formulas.

The construction of tests of proportionality (M3) was more complicated. Firstly, tasks on proportionality can be found in many different contexts, such as prescriptions, scales, speeds, discounts, interest, etc. Secondly, the mathematical model is complex and requires good knowledge of rational numbers and ratios ( Lesh et al., 1988 ). It also requires a developed view of multiplication, useful in operations with real numbers, not only as repeated addition, an operation limited to natural numbers ( Lybeck, 1981 ; Degrande et al., 2016 ). A linear structure of multiplication as repeated addition leads to limitations in terms of generalization and development of the concept of multiplication. This became evident in a study carried out in a Swedish context ( Karlsson and Kilborn, 2018c ). Proportionality can be expressed as a/b = c/d or as a/b = k. The latter can also be expressed as a = b∙k, where k is a constant that determines the relationship between a and b. Common examples of k are speed (km/h), scale, and interest (%). An important pre-knowledge in order to deal with proportions is to master fractions as equivalence classes like 1/3 = 2/6 = 3/9 = 4/12 = 5/15 = 6/18 = 7/21 = 8/24 … ( Karlsson and Kilborn, 2020 ). It was important to take all these aspects into account when constructing and assessing the solutions of the tasks.

The tests were graded by an experienced teacher of mathematics (4 th author) and two students in their final year of teacher training. Prior to grading, acceptable levels of inter-rater reliability were achieved by independent rating of students’ solutions and discussions in which differences between the graders were resolved. Each student response was to be assigned one point when it contained a correct answer and two points when the student provided argumentation for the correct answer and elaborated on explanation of his or her solution. The assessment was thus based on quality aspects with a focus on conceptual knowledge. As each subtest contained three questions, it generated three student solutions. So, scores for each subtest ranged from 0 to 6 points and for the total scores from 0 to 18 points. To ascertain that pre- and post-tests were equivalent in degree of difficulty, the tests were administered to an additional sample of 169 students in grade 5. Test for each model was conducted separately, as students participated in pre- and post-test for each model during the same lesson. The order of tests was switched for half of the students in order to avoid the effect of the order in which the pre- and post-tests were presented. Correlation between students’ performance on pre- and post-test was .39 ( p < 0.000) for tests of multiplication/division; .48 ( p < 0.000) for tests of geometry; and .56 ( p < 0.000) for tests of proportionality. Thus, the degree of difficulty may have differed between pre- and post-test.

Measures of Peer Acceptance and Friendships

To investigate students’ peer acceptance and friendships, peer nominations rated pre- and post-intervention were used. Students were asked to nominate peers who they preferred to work in groups with and who they preferred to be friends with. Negative peer nominations were avoided due to ethical considerations raised by teachers and parents ( Child and Nind, 2013 ). Unlimited nominations were used, as these are considered to have high ecological validity ( Cillessen and Marks, 2017 ). Peer nominations were used as a measure of social acceptance, and reciprocated nominations were used as a measure of friendship. The number of nominations for each student were aggregated and divided by the number of nominators to create a proportion of nominations for each student ( Velásquez et al., 2013 ).

Statistical Analyses

Multilevel regression analyses were conducted in R, lme4 package Bates et al. (2015) to account for nestedness in the data. Students’ classroom belonging was considered as a level 2 variable. First, we used a model in which students’ results on tests of problem-solving were studied as a function of time (pre- and post) and group belonging (intervention and control group). Second, the same model was applied to subgroups of students who performed above and below median at pre-test, to explore whether the CL intervention had a differential effect on student performance. In this second model, the results for subgroups of students could not be obtained for geometry tests for subgroup below median and for tests of proportionality for subgroup above median. A possible reason for this must have been the skewed distribution of the students in these subgroups. Therefore, another model was applied that investigated students’ performances in math at both pre- and post-test as a function of group belonging. Third, the students’ scores on social acceptance and friendships were added as an interaction term to the first model. In our previous study, students’ social acceptance changed as a result of the same CL intervention ( Klang et al., 2020 ).

The assumptions for the multilevel regression were assured during the analyses ( Snijders and Bosker, 2012 ). The assumption of normality of residuals were met, as controlled by visual inspection of quantile-quantile plots. For subgroups, however, the plotted residuals deviated somewhat from the straight line. The number of outliers, which had a studentized residual value greater than ±3, varied from 0 to 5, but none of the outliers had a Cook’s distance value larger than 1. The assumption of multicollinearity was met, as the variance inflation factors (VIF) did not exceed a value of 10. Before the analyses, the cases with missing data were deleted listwise.

What Is the Effect of the CL Approach on Students’ Problem-Solving in Mathematics?

As seen in the regression coefficients in Table 2 , the CL intervention had a significant effect on students’ mathematical problem-solving total scores and students’ scores in problem solving in geometry (Ma2). Judging by mean values, students in the intervention group appeared to have low scores on problem-solving in geometry but reached the levels of problem-solving of the control group by the end of the intervention. The intervention did not have a significant effect on students’ performance in problem-solving related to models of multiplication/division and proportionality.


TABLE 2 . Mean scores (standard deviation in parentheses) and unstandardized multilevel regression estimates for tests of mathematical problem-solving.

The question is, however, whether CL intervention affected students with different pre-test scores differently. Table 2 includes the regression coefficients for subgroups of students who performed below and above median at pre-test. As seen in the table, the CL approach did not have a significant effect on students’ problem-solving, when the sample was divided into these subgroups. A small negative effect was found for intervention group in comparison to control group, but confidence intervals (CI) for the effect indicate that it was not significant.

Is Social Acceptance and Friendships Associated With the Effect of CL on Students’ Problem-Solving in Mathematics?

As seen in Table 3 , students’ peer acceptance and friendship at pre-test were significantly associated with the effect of the CL approach on students’ mathematical problem-solving scores. Changes in students’ peer acceptance and friendships were not significantly associated with the effect of the CL approach on students’ mathematical problem-solving. Consequently, it can be concluded that being nominated by one’s peers and having friends at the start of the intervention may be an important factor when participation in group work, structured in accordance with the CL approach, leads to gains in mathematical problem-solving.


TABLE 3 . Mean scores (standard deviation in parentheses) and unstandardized multilevel regression estimates for tests of mathematical problem-solving, including scores of social acceptance and friendship in the model.

In light of the limited number of studies on the effects of CL on students’ problem-solving in whole classrooms ( Capar and Tarim, 2015 ), and for students with SEN in particular ( McMaster and Fuchs, 2002 ), this study sought to investigate whether the CL approach embedded in problem-solving activities has an effect on students’ problem-solving in heterogeneous classrooms. The need for the study was justified by the challenge of providing equitable mathematics instruction to heterogeneous student populations ( OECD, 2019 ). Small group instructional approaches as CL are considered as promising approaches in this regard ( Kunsch et al., 2007 ). The results showed a significant effect of the CL approach on students’ problem-solving in geometry and total problem-solving scores. In addition, with regard to the importance of peer support in problem-solving ( Deacon and Edwards, 2012 ; Hwang and Hu, 2013 ), the study explored whether the effect of CL on students’ problem-solving was associated with students’ social acceptance and friendships. The results showed that students’ peer acceptance and friendships at pre-test were significantly associated with the effect of the CL approach, while change in students’ peer acceptance and friendships from pre- to post-test was not.

The results of the study confirm previous research on the effect of the CL approach on students’ mathematical achievement ( Capar and Tarim, 2015 ). The specific contribution of the study is that it was conducted in classrooms, 75% of which were composed of 33–36% of students with SEN. Thus, while a previous review revealed inconclusive findings on the effects of CL on student achievement ( McMaster and Fuchs, 2002 ), the current study adds to the evidence of the effect of the CL approach in heterogeneous classrooms, in which students with special needs are educated alongside with their peers. In a small group setting, the students have opportunities to discuss their ideas of solutions to the problem at hand, providing explanations and clarifications, thus enhancing their understanding of problem-solving ( Yackel et al., 1991 ; Webb and Mastergeorge, 2003 ).

In this study, in accordance with previous research on mathematical problem-solving ( Lesh and Zawojewski, 2007 ; Degrande et al., 2016 ; Stohlmann and Albarracín, 2016 ), the CL approach was combined with training in problem-solving principles Pólya (1948) and educational materials, providing support in instruction in underlying mathematical models. The intention of the study was to provide evidence for the effectiveness of the CL approach above instruction in problem-solving, as problem-solving materials were accessible to teachers of both the intervention and control groups. However, due to implementation challenges, not all teachers in the intervention and control groups reported using educational materials and training as expected. Thus, it is not possible to draw conclusions of the effectiveness of the CL approach alone. However, in everyday classroom instruction it may be difficult to separate the content of instruction from the activities that are used to mediate this content ( Doerr and Tripp, 1999 ; Gravemeijer, 1999 ).

Furthermore, for successful instruction in mathematical problem-solving, scaffolding for content needs to be combined with scaffolding for dialogue ( Kazak et al., 2015 ). From a dialogical perspective ( Wegerif, 2011 ), students may need scaffolding in new ways of thinking, involving questioning their understandings and providing arguments for their solutions, in order to create dialogic spaces in which different solutions are voiced and negotiated. In this study, small group instruction through CL approach aimed to support discussions in small groups, but the study relies solely on quantitative measures of students’ mathematical performance. Video-recordings of students’ discussions may have yielded important insights into the dialogic relationships that arose in group discussions.

Despite the positive findings of the CL approach on students’ problem-solving, it is important to note that the intervention did not have an effect on students’ problem-solving pertaining to models of multiplication/division and proportionality. Although CL is assumed to be a promising instructional approach, the number of studies on its effect on students’ mathematical achievement is still limited ( Capar and Tarim, 2015 ). Thus, further research is needed on how CL intervention can be designed to promote students’ problem-solving in other areas of mathematics.

The results of this study show that the effect of the CL intervention on students’ problem-solving was associated with students’ initial scores of social acceptance and friendships. Thus, it is possible to assume that students who were popular among their classmates and had friends at the start of the intervention also made greater gains in mathematical problem-solving as a result of the CL intervention. This finding is in line with Deacon and Edwards’ study of the importance of friendships for students’ motivation to learn mathematics in small groups ( Deacon and Edwards, 2012 ). However, the effect of the CL intervention was not associated with change in students’ social acceptance and friendship scores. These results indicate that students who were nominated by a greater number of students and who received a greater number of friends did not benefit to a great extent from the CL intervention. With regard to previously reported inequalities in cooperation in heterogeneous groups ( Cohen, 1994 ; Mulryan, 1992 ; Langer Osuna, 2016 ) and the importance of peer behaviours for problem-solving ( Hwang and Hu, 2013 ), teachers should consider creating inclusive norms and supportive peer relationships when using the CL approach. The demands of solving complex problems may create negative emotions and uncertainty ( Hannula, 2015 ; Jordan and McDaniel, 2014 ), and peer support may be essential in such situations.


The conclusions from the study must be interpreted with caution, due to a number of limitations. First, due to the regulation of protection of individuals ( SFS 2009 ), the researchers could not get information on type of SEN for individual students, which limited the possibilities of the study for investigating the effects of the CL approach for these students. Second, not all teachers in the intervention group implemented the CL approach embedded in problem-solving activities and not all teachers in the control group reported using educational materials on problem-solving. The insufficient levels of implementation pose a significant challenge to the internal validity of the study. Third, the additional investigation to explore the equivalence in difficulty between pre- and post-test, including 169 students, revealed weak to moderate correlation in students’ performance scores, which may indicate challenges to the internal validity of the study.


The results of the study have some implications for practice. Based on the results of the significant effect of the CL intervention on students’ problem-solving, the CL approach appears to be a promising instructional approach in promoting students’ problem-solving. However, as the results of the CL approach were not significant for all subtests of problem-solving, and due to insufficient levels of implementation, it is not possible to conclude on the importance of the CL intervention for students’ problem-solving. Furthermore, it appears to be important to create opportunities for peer contacts and friendships when the CL approach is used in mathematical problem-solving activities.

Data Availability Statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Ethics Statement

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by the Uppsala Ethical Regional Committee, Dnr. 2017/372. Written informed consent to participate in this study was provided by the participants’ legal guardian/next of kin.

Author Contributions

NiK was responsible for the project, and participated in data collection and data analyses. NaK and WK were responsible for intervention with special focus on the educational materials and tests in mathematical problem-solving. PE participated in the planning of the study and the data analyses, including coordinating analyses of students’ tests. MK participated in the designing and planning the study as well as data collection and data analyses.

The project was funded by the Swedish Research Council under Grant 2016-04,679.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


We would like to express our gratitude to teachers who participated in the project.

Supplementary Material

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2021.710296/full#supplementary-material

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Swedish National Educational Agency (2018). Syllabus for the subject of mathematics in compulsory school . Retrieved from https://www.skolverket.se/undervisning/grundskolan/laroplan-och-kursplaner-for-grundskolan/laroplan-lgr11-for-grundskolan-samt-for-forskoleklassen-och-fritidshemmet?url=-996270488%2Fcompulsorycw%2Fjsp%2Fsubject.htm%3FsubjectCode%3DGRGRMAT01%26tos%3Dgr&sv.url=12.5dfee44715d35a5cdfa219f ( on the 32nd of July, 2021).

van Hiele, P. (1986). Structure and Insight. A Theory of Mathematics Education . London: Academic Press .

Velásquez, A. M., Bukowski, W. M., and Saldarriaga, L. M. (2013). Adjusting for Group Size Effects in Peer Nomination Data. Soc. Dev. 22 (4), a–n. doi:10.1111/sode.12029

Verschaffel, L., Greer, B., and De Corte, E. (2007). “Whole number concepts and operations,” in Second Handbook of Research on Mathematics Teaching and Learning: A Project of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics . Editor F. K. Lester (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Pub ), 557–628.

Webb, N. M., and Mastergeorge, A. (2003). Promoting effective helping behavior in peer-directed groups. Int. J. Educ. Res. 39 (1), 73–97. doi:10.1016/S0883-0355(03)00074-0

Wegerif, R. (2011). “Theories of Learning and Studies of Instructional Practice,” in Theories of learning and studies of instructional Practice. Explorations in the learning sciences, instructional systems and Performance technologies . Editor T. Koschmann (Berlin, Germany: Springer ). doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-7582-9

Yackel, E., Cobb, P., and Wood, T. (1991). Small-group interactions as a source of learning opportunities in second-grade mathematics. J. Res. Math. Edu. 22 (5), 390–408. doi:10.2307/749187

Zawojewski, J. (2010). Problem Solving versus Modeling. In R. Lesch, P. Galbraith, C. R. Haines, and A. Hurford (red.), Modelling student’s mathematical modelling competencies: ICTMA , p. 237–243. New York, NY: Springer .doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-0561-1_20

Keywords: cooperative learning, mathematical problem-solving, intervention, heterogeneous classrooms, hierarchical linear regression analysis

Citation: Klang N, Karlsson N, Kilborn W, Eriksson P and Karlberg M (2021) Mathematical Problem-Solving Through Cooperative Learning—The Importance of Peer Acceptance and Friendships. Front. Educ. 6:710296. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2021.710296

Received: 15 May 2021; Accepted: 09 August 2021; Published: 24 August 2021.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2021 Klang, Karlsson, Kilborn, Eriksson and Karlberg. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Nina Klang, [email protected]

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Mathematics LibreTexts

1.6: Problem Solving Strategies

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  • Page ID 132869

  • Michelle Manes
  • University of Hawaii

Think back to the first problem in this chapter, the ABC Problem. What did you do to solve it? Even if you did not figure it out completely by yourself, you probably worked towards a solution and figured out some things that did not work.

Unlike exercises, there is never a simple recipe for solving a problem. You can get better and better at solving problems, both by building up your background knowledge and by simply practicing. As you solve more problems (and learn how other people solve them), you learn strategies and techniques that can be useful. But no single strategy works every time.

How to Solve It

George Pólya was a great champion in the field of teaching  effective problem solving skills. He was born in Hungary in 1887, received his Ph.D. at the University of Budapest, and was a professor at Stanford University (among other universities). He wrote many mathematical papers along with three books, most famously, How to Solve it . Pólya died at the age 98 in 1985. [1]


George Pólya, circa 1973

  • Image of Pólya by Thane Plambeck from Palo Alto, California (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons ↵

In 1945, Pólya published the short book How to Solve It , which gave a four-step method for solving mathematical problems:

  • First, you have to understand the problem.
  • After understanding, then make a plan.
  • Carry out the plan.
  • Look back on your work. How could it be better?

This is all well and good, but how do you actually do these steps?!?! Steps 1. and 2. are particularly mysterious! How do you “make a plan?” That is where you need some tools in your toolbox, and some experience to draw upon.

Much has been written since 1945 to explain these steps in more detail, but the truth is that they are more art than science. This is where math becomes a creative endeavor (and where it becomes so much fun). We will articulate some useful problem solving strategies, but no such list will ever be complete. This is really just a start to help you on your way. The best way to become a skilled problem solver is to learn the background material well, and then to solve a lot of problems!

We have already seen one problem solving strategy, which we call “Wishful Thinking.” Do not be afraid to change the problem! Ask yourself “what if” questions:

  • What if the picture was different?
  • What if the numbers were simpler?
  • What if I just made up some numbers?

You need to be sure to go back to the original problem at the end, but wishful thinking can be a powerful strategy for getting started.

This brings us to the most important problem solving strategy of all:

A Problem Solving Strategy: Try Something!

If you are really trying to solve a problem, the whole point is that you do not know what to do right out of the starting gate. You need to just try something! Put pencil to paper (or stylus to screen or chalk to board or whatever!) and try something. This is often an important step in understanding the problem; just mess around with it a bit to understand the situation and figure out what is going on.

Note that being "good at mathematics" is not about doing things right the first time. It is about figuring things out. Practice being okay with having done something incorrectly. Try to avoid using an eraser and just lightly cross out incorrect work (do not black out the entire thing). This way if it turns out that you did something useful, you still have that work to reference! If what you tried first does not work, try something else! Play around with the problem until you have a feel for what is going on.

Last week, Alex borrowed money from several of his friends. He finally got paid at work, so he brought cash to school to pay back his debts. First he saw Brianna, and he gave her 1/4 of the money he had brought to school. Then Alex saw Chris and gave him 1/3 of what was left after paying Brianna. Finally, Alex saw David and gave him 1/2 of the remaining money. Who got the most money from Alex?


After you have worked on the problem on your own for a while, talk through your ideas with a partner if possible (even if you have not solved it). What did you try? What did you figure out about the problem? This problem lends itself to two particular strategies. Did you try either of these as you worked on the problem? If not, read about the strategy and then try it out before watching the solution.

A Problem Solving Strategy: Draw a Picture

Some problems are obviously about a geometric situation, and it is clear you want to draw a picture and mark down all of the given information before you try to solve it. But even for a problem that is not geometric, like this one, thinking visually can help! Can you represent something in the situation by a picture?

Draw a square to represent all of Alex’s money. Then shade 1/4 of the square — that’s what he gave away to Brianna. How can the picture help you finish the problem?

After you have worked on the problem yourself using this strategy (or if you are completely stuck), you can watch someone else’s solution.

A Problem Solving Strategy: Make Up Numbers

Part of what makes this problem difficult is that it is about money, but there are no numbers given. That means the numbers must not be important. So just make them up!

Try this: Assume (that is, pretend) Alex had some specific amount of money when he showed up at school, say $100. Then figure out how much he gives to each person.

Or try working backward: suppose Alex has some specific amount left at the end, say $10. Since he gave David half of what he had before seeing David, that means he had $20 before running into David. Now, work backwards and figure out how much each person got.

Watch the solution only after you tried this strategy for yourself.

If you use the “Make Up Numbers” strategy, it is really important to remember what the original problem was asking! You do not want to answer something like “Everyone got $10.” That is not true in the original problem; that is an artifact of the numbers you made up. So after you work everything out, be sure to re-read the problem and answer what was asked!

(Squares on a Chess Board)

How many squares, of any possible size, are on a 8 × 8 chess board? (The answer is not 64... It’s a lot bigger!)

Remember Pólya’s first step is to understand the problem. If you are not sure what is being asked, or why the answer is not just 64, be sure to ask someone!

Think / Pair / Share

After you have worked on the problem on your own for a while, talk through your ideas with a partner if possible (even if you have not solved it). What did you try? What did you figure out about the problem, even if you have not solved it completely?

Most people want to draw a picture for this problem, but even with the picture it can be hard to know if you have found the correct answer. The numbers get big, and it can be hard to keep track of your work. Your goal at the end is to be absolutely positive that you found the right answer. Instead of asking the teacher, “Is this right?”, you should be ready to justify it and say, “Here’s my answer, and here is how I got it.”

A Problem Solving Strategy: Try a Simpler Problem

Pólya suggested this strategy: “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.” He also said, “If you cannot solve the proposed problem, try to solve first some related problem. Could you imagine a more accessible related problem?” In this case, an 8 × 8 chess board is pretty big. Can you solve the problem for smaller boards? Like 1 × 1? 2 × 2? 3 × 3?

The ultimate goal is to solve the original problem. But working with smaller boards might give you some insight and help you devise your plan (that is Pólya’s step (2)).

A Problem Solving Strategy: Work Systematically

If you are working on simpler problems, it is useful to keep track of what you have figured out and what changes as the problem gets more complicated.

For example, in this problem you might keep track of how many 1 × 1 squares are on each board, how many 2 × 2 squares on are each board, how many 3 × 3 squares are on each board, and so on. You could keep track of the information in a table:

A Problem Solving Strategy: Use Manipulatives to Help You Investigate

Sometimes even drawing a picture may not be enough to help you investigate a problem. Having actual materials that you move around can sometimes help a lot!

For example, in this problem it can be difficult to keep track of which squares you have already counted. You might want to cut out 1 × 1 squares, 2 × 2 squares, 3 × 3 squares, and so on. You can actually move the smaller squares across the chess board in a systematic way, making sure that you count everything once and do not count anything twice.

A Problem Solving Strategy: Look for and Explain Patterns

Sometimes the numbers in a problem are so big, there is no way you will actually count everything up by hand. For example, if the problem in this section were about a 100 × 100 chess board, you would not want to go through counting all the squares by hand! It would be much more appealing to find a pattern in the smaller boards and then extend that pattern to solve the problem for a 100 × 100 chess board just with a calculation.

If you have not done so already, extend the table above all the way to an 8 × 8 chess board, filling in all the rows and columns. Use your table to find the total number of squares in an 8 × 8 chess board. Then:

  • Describe all of the patterns you see in the table. If possible, actually describe these to a friend.
  • Explain and justify any of the patterns you see (if possible, actually do this with a friend). If you don't have a partner to work with, imagine they asked you, "How can you be sure the patterns will continue?"
  • Expand this to find what calculation(s) you would perform to find the total number of squares on a 100 × 100 chess board.

(We will come back to this question soon. So if you are not sure right now how to explain and justify the patterns you found, that is OK.)

(Broken Clock)

This clock has been broken into three pieces. If you add the numbers in each piece, the sums are consecutive numbers. ( Consecutive numbers are whole numbers that appear one after the other, such as 1, 2, 3, 4 or 13, 14, 15.)


Can you break another clock into a different number of pieces so that the sums are consecutive numbers? Assume that each piece has at least two numbers and that no number is damaged (e.g. 12 isn’t split into two digits 1 and 2).

Remember that your first step is to understand the problem. Work out what is going on here. What are the sums of the numbers on each piece? Are they consecutive?

After you have worked on the problem on your own for a while, talk through your ideas with a partner if possible (even if you have not solved it). What did you try? What progress have you made?

A Problem Solving Strategy: Find the Math, Remove the Context

Sometimes the problem has a lot of details in it that are unimportant, or at least unimportant for getting started. The goal is to find the underlying math problem, then come back to the original question and see if you can solve it using the math.

In this case, worrying about the clock and exactly how the pieces break is less important than worrying about finding consecutive numbers that sum to the correct total. Ask yourself:

  • What is the sum of all the numbers on the clock’s face?
  • Can I find two consecutive numbers that give the correct sum? Or four consecutive numbers? Or some other amount?
  • How do I know when I am done? When should I stop looking?

Of course, solving the question about consecutive numbers is not the same as solving the original problem. You have to go back and see if the clock can actually break apart so that each piece gives you one of those consecutive numbers. Maybe you can solve the math problem, but it does not translate into solving the clock problem.

A Problem Solving Strategy: Check Your Assumptions

When solving problems, it is easy to limit your thinking by adding extra assumptions that are not in the problem. Be sure you ask yourself: Am I constraining my thinking too much?

In the clock problem, because the first solution has the clock broken radially (all three pieces meet at the center, so it looks like slicing a pie), many people assume that is how the clock must break. But the problem does not require the clock to break radially. It might break into pieces like this:


Were you assuming the clock would break in a specific way? Try to solve the problem now, if you have not already.

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Problem-solving Schools

problem solving in school mathematics

Problem-solving Schools supports learners embed key problem-solving strategies as they progress through their schooling, backed by our Problem-solving Schools' Charter .

Want to raise the profile of mathematical problem-solving in your school?

Looking for support to help your students become better problem-solvers?

Want to be connected to like-minded teachers?

Become a Problem-solving School

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What is the Problem-solving Schools initiative?

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We aim to help you raise the profile of mathematical problem-solving in your school. Our Charter offers a framework intended to inform policy and practice.

Becoming a Problem-solving School

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Everything you need to know about joining this initiative.

The Problem-solving Schools’ Charter

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Use our Charter to help you reflect on your current practice and to agree on areas for development.

Resources and professional development

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Our support material and webinars aim to help your school move forward on its problem-solving journey.

Welcoming our latest schools

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Coming soon… Find out which schools in your area are raising the status of problem-solving in their mathematics classrooms.

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Concrete-to-Representational-to-Abstract Instruction

What is the purpose of cra instruction.

The purpose of teaching through a concrete-to-representational-to-abstract sequence of instruction is to ensure students develop a tangible understanding of the math concepts/skills they learn. When students are supported to first develop a concrete level of understanding for any mathematics concept/skill, they can use this foundation to later link their conceptual understanding to abstract mathematics learning activities. Having students represent their concrete understandings (representational) by drawing simple pictures that replicate or mimic their use of concrete materials provide students a supported process for transferring their concrete understandings to the abstract level. Moreover, teaching students how to draw solutions to problem solving situations provides an excellent strategy for problem solving in the future.

What is CRA Instruction?

Concrete. Each math concept/skill is first modeled with concrete materials (e.g. chips, unifix cubes, base ten blocks, beans and bean sticks, pattern blocks). Students are provided many opportunities to practice and demonstrate mastery using concrete materials.

Representational. The math concept/skill is next modeled at the representational (semi-concrete) level, which involves drawing pictures that represent the concrete objects previously used (e.g. tallies, dots, circles, stamps that imprint pictures for counting). Students are provided many opportunities to practice and demonstrate mastery by drawing solutions.

Abstract. The math concept/skill is finally modeled at the abstract level (using only numbers and mathematical symbols). Students are provided many opportunities to practice and demonstrate mastery at the abstract level before moving to a new math concept/skill.

As a teacher moves through a concrete-to-representational-to-abstract sequence of instruction, the abstract numbers and/or symbols should be used in conjunction with the concrete materials and representational drawings. This is especially important for students with special needs since it promotes association of abstract symbols with their concrete and representational understandings.

What are some important considerations when implementing CRA Instruction?

  • First use appropriate concrete objects to teach particular math concepts/skills. Discrete materials (e.g. counting objects such as beans, chips, unifix cubes, popsicle sticks, etc.) are especially helpful since students can see and feel the attributes of the objects they are using. Base-ten materials are excellent for building understanding of place value and other number and number sense relationships. Having students actually combine individual objects in groups of ten and hundreds first can solidify the process of regrouping and place value sense (e.g. bundling ten popsicle sticks with a rubberband or connecting ten unifix cubes to make "ten". Then expose students to already made base-ten materials.   
  • After students demonstrate mastery at the concrete level (e.g. 5 out of 5 correct for three consecutive days), then teach appropriate drawing techniques where students problem solve by drawing simple representations of the concrete objects they previously used. The use of tallies, dots, and circles are examples of simple drawings students can make. By replicating the movements students previously used with concrete materials, drawing simple representations of those objects supports students' evolving abstract understanding of the concept/skill. They replicate similar movements using slightly more abstract representations of the mathematics concept/skill.  
  • After students demonstrate mastery at the representational level (e.g. 10 out of 10 correct for three consecutive days) use appropriate strategies for assisting students to move to the abstract level of understanding for a particular math concept/skill. Students with special needs often have difficulty developing abstract level understandings. Several barriers can make this situation occur. Sometimes students have never developed conceptual understanding of the target mathematics concept/skill. Typically this occurs when students have not been allowed to develop that understanding at the concrete & representational levels of understanding. Two ways to manage this situation are to re-teach the mathematics concept/skill using appropriate concrete materials and then explicitly show the relationship between the concrete materials and the abstract representation of the materials. For students who have a concrete level of understanding, provide students opportunities to use their language to describe their solutions and their understandings of the mathematics concept/skill they are learning. Other possible reasons students may have difficulty developing abstract understandings of a particular mathematics concept/skill are: they have difficulty with basic facts because of memory problems, they repeat procedural mistakes that can result from perceptual processing deficits, attention difficulties, memory problems, or they use faulty algorithms that result from non-understanding of prerequisite concepts/skills (e.g. place value).  

When teaching at each level of understanding, use explicit teaching methods.

How do I implement CRA Instruction?

  • When initially teaching a math concept/skill, describe and model it using concrete objects (concrete level of understanding).
  • Provide students multiple practice opportunities using concrete objects.
  • When students demonstrate mastery by using concrete objects, describe and model how to perform the skill by drawing or using pictures that represent concrete objects (representational level of understanding).
  • Provide multiple practice opportunities where students draw their solutions or use pictures to problem-solve.
  • When students demonstrate mastery by drawing solutions, describe and model how to perform the skill using only numbers and math symbols (abstract level of understanding).
  • Provide multiple opportunities for students to practice performing the skill using only numbers and symbols.
  • After students master performing the skill at the abstract level of understanding, ensure students maintain their skill level by providing periodic practice opportunities for the math skills.

How does CRA help students who have learning problems?

  • It teaches conceptual understanding by connecting concrete understanding to abstract math processes.
  • By linking learning experiences from concrete-to-representational-to-abstract levels of understanding, the teacher provides a graduated framework for students to make meaningful connections.
  • CRA blends conceptual and procedural understanding in structured way so that students learn both the "How" and the "Why" to the problem solving procedures they learn to do; and, they learn the "What," that is they develop conceptual understanding of the mathematics concept that underlies the problem solving process.

What are additional resources I can use to help me implement CRA Instruction?

MathVIDS  MathVIDS is an interactive CD-ROM/website for teachers who are teaching math to students who are having difficulty learning mathematics. The development of MathVIDS was sponsored through funding by the Virginia Department of Education.

problem solving in school mathematics

Minecraft Math Activities for Elementary and Middle School

Multiply the excitement about math by using Minecraft! Your students will love these Minecraft math activities.

Doing Math with Minecraft

Unlike other video games, Minecraft works well as an educational platform. (It’s not all fighting Endermen!)

With its block design and the ability to build whatever you imagine, Minecraft works exceptionally well for math activities.

Check out these Minecraft math activities for elementary and middle school.

This article contains affiliate links to things that you might like.

Minecraft Math Activities for Elementary

Whether you are teaching counting, shapes, or basic operations, Minecraft has activities to reinforce learning.

Counting and Number Recognition

The blocks in Minecraft are virtual manipulatives.

Practice counting blocks and recognizing numbers.

You can even build numbers out of blocks.

Basic Addition and Subtraction Tasks

Use in-game items to solve simple addition and subtraction problems.

How many lumps of coal did you find? Dig more. How many do you have now?

How many sheep do you have in your farm? If you take some away, how many are left?

Shape Identification and Sorting

Identify and sort different shapes found in Minecraft structures.

You can build a structure for your students to take apart.

Pattern Recognition Exercises

Practice recognizing and extending patterns seen in Minecraft builds.

Can you make a wall with blocks in a pattern (by color, number, or shape)?

Can students extend the wall by identifying and replicating the pattern?

Measurement Activities

You may not have a ruler in Minecraft, but the world is made of unit cubes.

Measure distances, heights, and sizes of objects using Minecraft blocks.

Time Telling Challenges

Make clocks using the crafting system in the game.

Then, you can associate in-game events with telling time on analog clocks.

Skip Counting Drills

Practice skip counting by twos, fives, or tens using in-game elements like crops, ore, gems, and animals.

Word Problems with Visual Aids

Word problems come to life in Minecraft!

Solve word problems with visual representations using Minecraft scenes.

Minecraft Math Activities for Middle School

Middle school math concepts are easily depicted and practiced in Minecraft.

Area and Perimeter Challenges

Calculating the area and perimeter of structures built in Minecraft.

You can even have students build their own structures (as long as the structure has a basic footprint).

This combines math and art; this strategy interests a broader group of students.

Volume and Surface Area Calculations

Since blocks are three-dimensional, you can also calculate the volume of 3D structures in the game.

Few people like to find the volume of a rectangular prism.

But if that rectangular prism is a Minecraft treasure chamber…that’s another story.

You can even make this challenge like an escape room. Once your students find the volume, they can open the chamber.

Fraction Representation

You can represent fractions using blocks or resources in Minecraft builds.

Check out this lesson on fractions in Minecraft Education.

Coordinate Plane Exploration

Plot coordinates to navigate and locate specific points within the game world.

This lesson teaches students the basics of the Minecraft coordinate system.

Ratio and Proportion Tasks

Create proportional structures or designs using blocks in Minecraft.

Create a small structure. Can the students replicate it on a bigger scale?

Use proportions and ratios to make it accurate!

Decimal Operations Practice

In Minecraft scenarios, perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division with decimals.

For example, you can create a 10 x 10 garden with 100 crops.

What portion of the garden is sunflowers? (0.30)

Try it out with this lesson .

Data Analysis Challenges

Collect and analyze in-game data to create graphs and interpret results.

Decide what data you want to count (Endermen?), fill out a table, and convert it to a graph.

You can even make an in-game bar graph out of blocks!

Learning with Minecraft Math Activities

Math exercises are much more appealing when you practice them in Minecraft.

Let technology boost your students’ enthusiasm for learning.

You May Also Like:

  • 10 Fun Facts About Minecraft
  • 100 Minecraft Activities and Resources for Kids
  • Helping Kids Overcome Math Anxiety

The post Minecraft Math Activities for Elementary and Middle School appeared first on Mama Teaches .

Multiply your students' enthusiasm for math with these Minecraft math activities for elementary and middle school.

  • Solar Eclipse 2024: 4 Math Worksheets - Middle School (Printable+Digital)

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problem solving in school mathematics


This activity contains 4 NO PREP middle school math activities (front and back) related to the Solar Eclipse happening April 8, 2024. Each activity can be used separately, completed as stations, or as a packet of worksheets. These activities were designed for middle school, but could be used for upper elementary (with scaffolding) or high school students in Pre-Algebra, Pre Algebra, Algebra, or Geometry.

These activities includes the following math skills:

  • Probability - Fractions - Percentages
  • Rotations on a Graph - Plotting Points on a Graph
  • Scientific Notation and Standard Form
  • Converting Units (length, time, speed, etc)
  • Elapsed Time Word Problems
  • Surface Area of a Sphere
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Looking for more Solar Eclipse 2024 Activities? Try these! Solar Eclipse 2024 Growing Bundle - includes all activites below

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Solar Eclipse - Reading and Writing Bundle and Activities

  • Solar Eclipse 2024 Text Structure Activity Reading and Writing
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Solar Eclipse - Math Bundle and 10 Activities

  • Solar Eclipse 2024: 6 Middle School Math Activities (Printable + Digital)
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  • Solar Eclipse 2024: 3 Math Worksheets - Middle School (Printable+Digital)

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  1. CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING in School Mathematics (2nd Ed)

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  2. Problem Solving Strategies (Maths)

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  3. Teaching Problem Solving in Math: 5 Strategies For Becoming a Better

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  5. Creative Problem Solving in School Mathematics by G. Lenchner

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  6. Creative Problem Solving in School Mathematics: Price Comparison on Booko

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  1. LHS = RHS 😂😂 #maths #school #schoollife #mathematics #kannada #yashwanthshetty

  2. Problem Solving and Reasoning: Polya's Steps and Problem Solving Strategies

  3. Can You Solve This Math Problem ?? If a + b=5, ab=6. Then Find a³

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  6. Types of Problem solving And purpose


  1. Problem Solving in Mathematics Education

    Singer et al. ( 2013) provides a broad view about problem posing that links problem posing experiences to general mathematics education; to the development of abilities, attitudes and creativity; and also to its interrelation with problem solving, and studies on when and how problem-solving sessions should take place.

  2. 6 Tips for Teaching Math Problem-Solving Skills

    1. Link problem-solving to reading. When we can remind students that they already have many comprehension skills and strategies they can easily use in math problem-solving, it can ease the anxiety surrounding the math problem. For example, providing them with strategies to practice, such as visualizing, acting out the problem with math tools ...

  3. Teaching Mathematics Through Problem Solving

    Teaching about problem solving begins with suggested strategies to solve a problem. For example, "draw a picture," "make a table," etc. You may see posters in teachers' classrooms of the "Problem Solving Method" such as: 1) Read the problem, 2) Devise a plan, 3) Solve the problem, and 4) Check your work. There is little or no ...

  4. Problem solving in the mathematics curriculum: From domain‐general

    INTRODUCTION. There is a widespread consensus across many countries that problem solving is a fundamental aspect within the school mathematics curriculum, and it appears prominently in mathematics curricula around the world (Törner et al., 2007).Problem solving is critical for life in the modern world and a central aspect of mathematics (ACME, 2011, 2016; English & Gainsburg, 2016; English ...

  5. PDF Problem solving in mathematics

    Therefore, high-quality assessment of problem solving in public tests and assessments1 is essential in order to ensure the effective learning and teaching of problem solving throughout primary and secondary education. Although the focus here is on the assessment of problem solving in mathematics, many of the ideas will be directly transferable ...

  6. PDF Developing mathematical problem-solving skills in primary school by

    referred to as a framework to underline different -solving; phases of problem mathematics is more than just filling in the textbook, it could be understood as an activity. Devising a plan and choosing the most appropriate heuristic were supported by visual tools called Problem-solving Keys, which are introduced in Chapter 3.2.

  7. Problem Solving

    Brief. Problem solving plays an important role in mathematics and should have a prominent role in the mathematics education of K-12 students. However, knowing how to incorporate problem solving meaningfully into the mathematics curriculum is not necessarily obvious to mathematics teachers. (The term "problem solving" refers to mathematical ...

  8. Problem Solving in Mathematics Education

    In mathematics education, the mathematicians' work and developments in disciplines as psychology became relevant to relate problem-solving activities and the students' learning of mathematics. Schoenfeld ( 1985) suggests that open critiques (Kline 1973) to the new math and the back-to-basic reforms in the USA were important to focus on ...

  9. PDF Cognitive flexibility: exploring students' problem-solving in

    solving in elementary school mathematics learning. ... Surprisingly, students remain weak in problem-solving and view mathematics as one of the difficult and boring subjects to learn and deal with a variety of topics (Bishara, 2016; Subaidi, 2016; Warih et al., 2016). The goal of developing students' problem-solving skills

  10. Problem-Based Instruction In Math

    Students are exposed to word problems and applications at the end of the unit and then only minimally. As a result, students have developed a mathematical identity that defines their role in math class not as learners of mathematics and problem solvers but as performers whose only goal is to get questions right (Boaler, 2022).


    the studies showing how strategies can improve mathematics problem solving, Koichu, Berman, and Moore (2004) aimed to promote heuristic literacy in a regular mathematics classroom. Moreover, Dewey's (1933) "How we think", Polya's (1988) problem-solving methods and the stages of Krulik and

  12. Problematizing teaching and learning mathematics as "given" in STEM

    The history shows school mathematics curricula have emphasized teaching and learning mathematical knowledge and skills, together with problem solving and some applications of mathematics, a picture that is consistent with what Devlin refers to as the 1st face and some reference to the 4th face of mathematics.

  13. Frontiers

    Mathematical problem-solving constitutes an important area of mathematics instruction, and there is a need for research on instructional approaches supporting student learning in this area. This study aims to contribute to previous research by studying the effects of an instructional approach of cooperative learning on students' mathematical problem-solving in heterogeneous classrooms in ...

  14. Problem Solving Approach to Mathematics for Elementary School ...

    ISBN-13: 9780136880141. Problem Solving Approach to Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers, A. Published 2020.

  15. 1.6: Problem Solving Strategies

    A Problem Solving Strategy: Find the Math, Remove the Context. Sometimes the problem has a lot of details in it that are unimportant, or at least unimportant for getting started. The goal is to find the underlying math problem, then come back to the original question and see if you can solve it using the math.

  16. Problem Solving in School Mathematics

    Learning to Think Mathematically: Problem Solving, Metacognition, and Sense Making in Mathematics (Reprint) The goals of this chapter are (1) to outline and substantiate a broad conceptualization of what it means to think mathematically, (2) to summarize the literature relevant to understanding….

  17. Creative Problem Solving in School Mathematics

    Overview. Creative Problem Solving in School Mathematics is an outstanding resource for introducing problem solving to beginning students in grades 4-8. The text uses nearly 400 challenging nonroutine problems to extend elementary and middle school mathematics into such topics as sequences, series, principles of divisibility, geometric ...

  18. Creative problem solving in school mathematics

    Problem solving -- Study and teaching (Elementary), Problem solving -- Study and teaching (Secondary), Mathematics -- Study and teaching (Elementary), Mathematics -- Study and teaching (Secondary) Publisher Bellmore, NY : MOEMS Collection inlibrary; printdisabled; internetarchivebooks Contributor Internet Archive Language English

  19. Problem Solving in School Mathematics Based on Heuristic Strategies

    Schoenfeld, A. (1985) Mathematical Problem Solving, London: Academic Press. Stacey, K. (1991) 'The effects on student's problem solving behavior of long-term teaching through a problem solving approach', Proceedings of the 15th conference of the international group for the psychology of mathematics education, vol. 3, pp. 278-285, Assisi.

  20. Problem-solving Schools

    Mathematics resources for children,parents and teachers to enrich learning. Problems,children's solutions,interactivities,games,articles. ... We aim to help you raise the profile of mathematical problem-solving in your school. Our Charter offers a framework intended to inform policy and practice.

  21. PDF The Perceptions of High School Mathematics Problem Solving ...

    The Perceptions of High School Mathematics Problem Solving Teaching 58 motivation to solve the problem will force them to invent new concepts. He argued that the aim of problem-centred teaching is not to show how to apply the knowledge but to show how to ‗invent' knowledge. Schoenfeld (1992) also supported this by


    This research aims to explore factors that affect mathematics problem-solving student characteristics competency in high school. A conceptual framework was developed utilizing quantitative study ...

  23. Concrete-to-Representational-to-Abstract Instruction

    CRA blends conceptual and procedural understanding in structured way so that students learn both the "How" and the "Why" to the problem solving procedures they learn to do; and, they learn the "What," that is they develop conceptual understanding of the mathematics concept that underlies the problem solving process.

  24. Reasoning with Two Types of Multiplicative Units Structures in Solving

    ABSTRACT. In the present study, we illuminate students' multiplicative reasoning in the context of their units-coordinating activity. Of particular interest is to investigate students' use of three levels ofunits as given material for problem-solving activity, which we regard as supporting a more advanced level of multiplicative reasoning.

  25. Minecraft Math Activities for Elementary and Middle School

    Practice counting blocks and recognizing numbers. You can even build numbers out of blocks. Basic Addition and Subtraction Tasks. Use in-game items to solve simple addition and subtraction problems.

  26. Solar Eclipse 2024: 4 Math Worksheets

    This activity contains 4 NO PREP middle school math activities (front and back) related to the Solar Eclipse happening April 8, 2024. Each activity can be used separately, completed as stations, or as a packet of worksheets. ... Use the four operations to solve word problems involving distances, intervals of time, liquid volumes, masses of ...

  27. PDF Student Struggle During Collaborative Problem-solving in One

    In solving mathematics problems in collaboration, students encounter a range of mathematical and social struggles. As teachers cannot possibly respond to every such struggle, they may need ... Problem Solving, Middle School Education, Teacher Educators . Conceptual Framework . Struggle is of crucial importance to student learning (Hiebert ...

  28. Prisms Math on Meta Quest

    Prisms is a new world spatial learning platform that enables learners to grasp abstract math concepts in a delightful, meaningful, and efficacious way. In Prisms' learning modules, students gain a deeper understanding of important (and fun!) problems in our world today, while accelerating proficiencies in core concepts across Middle School Math, Geometry, and Algebra I/II courses.

  29. The Newest Tech Start-Up Billionaire? Donald Trump

    The Sunday Read: 'My Goldendoodle Spent a Week at Some Luxury Dog 'Hotels.' I Tagged Along.'