Creating resilient problem solvers

It is by engaging with tasks that students develop ideas about the nature of mathematics and discover that they have the capacity to make sense of mathematics. Tasks and learning experiences that allow for original thinking about concepts and relationships encourage students to become proficient doers and learners of mathematics.

          Effective Pedagogy in Mathematics, page 13

The core of mathematics is problem solving. By definition, a “problem” is something that involves struggle to solve. A student with a positive mathematical identity is unfazed by challenging problems, even if they can’t immediately see a way forward. They know that, with effort, time, and support, they are likely to find a solution. For these students, failed attempts are a normal and vital part of learning.

Vulnerable learners often believe that if they need to work hard to learn something, it means that they are not smart. Challenging problems can evoke negative emotions because students have to battle with their fear of failure or sense of inadequacy to even get started.

If students have a fragile self-esteem, they are likely to choose tasks that are easily achievable and will avoid more challenging tasks that require struggle and perseverance. By doing so, they are limiting their opportunities for genuine growth. Some well-intentioned teachers make this choice on their students’ behalf. 

Actions

Emphasise maths as problem solving. Resist the temptation to simplify tasks so that success comes easily. Instead, help students to embrace challenges, mistakes, and struggles as an essential part of learning. Give students tasks within their proximal zone of development.

Back to Resource 1: Fostering positive mathematical identities