## 5 Teaching Mathematics Through Problem Solving

Janet Stramel

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.

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

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

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?

## 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
• 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

## 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.

• “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

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## Teaching Mathematics in Grades 6 - 12 Developing Research-Based Instructional Practices

• Randall E. Groth - Salisbury University

A journey into the vibrant and intriguing world of mathematics education

• Description

Teaching Mathematics in Grades 6 - 12 explores how research in mathematics education can inform teaching practice in grades 6-12. The author shows secondary mathematics teachers the value of being a researcher in the classroom by constantly experimenting with methods for developing students' mathematical thinking and then connecting this research to practices that enhance students' understanding of the material. The chapters in Part I introduce secondary teachers to the field of mathematics education with cross-cutting issues that apply to teaching and learning in all mathematics content areas. The chapters in Part II are devoted to specific mathematics content strands and describe how students think about mathematical concepts. The goal of the text is to have secondary math teachers gain a deeper understanding of the types of mathematical knowledge their students bring to grade 6 – 12 classrooms, and how students' thinking may develop in response to different teaching strategies.

See what’s new to this edition by selecting the Features tab on this page. Should you need additional information or have questions regarding the HEOA information provided for this title, including what is new to this edition, please email [email protected] . Please include your name, contact information, and the name of the title for which you would like more information. For information on the HEOA, please go to http://ed.gov/policy/highered/leg/hea08/index.html .

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## Supplements

Groth's text includes a full coverage of critical topics. It makes excellent connections to research that are accessible to undergraduates. It also illustrates appropriate uses of technology in secondary mathematics teaching. Great book!

Very complete and useful for students.

Book ties research to teaching well. I like the division between methods and content.

Very user friendly and affordable

• Vignette Analysis Activities are realistic classroom situations that highlight common potential pitfalls for beginning teachers and serve as the basis for analytic class discussions about teaching mathematics.
• Clinical Tasks engage readers in conducting small-scale research projects and bring chapter content to life. Instructors can use the tasks to provide structure for the clinical time students are required to spend in mathematics classrooms.
• Implementing the Common Core marginal notes point readers toward homework and clinical tasks that relate to implementing the Common Core State Standards. Instructors can quickly flip through the text to quickly see connections between the Common Core State Standards and the content of each chapter.
• Technology Connections help future teachers understand how today's technology can enhance the teaching and learning of mathematics.
• Ideas for Differentiating Instruction provides ideas about how to structure lessons to help a wide range of students learn.
• Four-column lesson plans demonstrate how articles from teacher-oriented journals can be transformed into lesson-plans that help develop students' mathematical thinking.
• Stop to Reflect questions prompts readers to answer a question related to the reading. Instructors can also use these questions as catalysts for class discussions.
• Homework Tasks extend and deepen readers' knowledge of the content and pedagogy discussed in each chapter.

## Sample Materials & Chapters

Lesson Plan Template

## For instructors

This title is also available on SAGE Knowledge , the ultimate social sciences online library. If your library doesn’t have access, ask your librarian to start a trial .

• Our Mission

## How Students Can Rethink Problem Solving

Finding, shaping, and solving problems puts high school students in charge of their learning and bolsters critical-thinking skills.

As an educator for over 20 years, I’ve heard a lot about critical thinking , problem-solving , and inquiry and how they foster student engagement. However, I’ve also seen students draw a blank when they’re given a problem to solve. This happens when the problem is too vast for them to develop a solution or they don’t think the situation is problematic.

As I’ve tried, failed, and tried again to engage my students in critical thinking, problem-solving, and inquiry, I’ve experienced greater engagement when I allow them to problem-find, problem-shape, and problem-solve. This shift in perspective has helped my students take direct ownership over their learning.

## Encourage Students to Find the Problem

When students ask a question that prompts their curiosity, it motivates them to seek out an answer. This answer often highlights a problem.

For example, I gave my grade 11 students a list of topics to explore, and they signed up for a topic that they were interested in. From that, they had to develop a research question. This allowed them to narrow the topic down to what they were specifically curious about.

Developing a research question initiated the research process. Students launched into reading information from reliable sources including Britannica , Newsela , and EBSCOhost . Through the reading process, they were able to access information so that they could attempt to find an answer to their question.

The nature of a good question is that there isn’t an “answer.” Instead, there are a variety of answers. This allowed students to feel safe in sharing their answers because they couldn’t be “wrong.” If they had reliable, peer-reviewed academic research to support their answer, they were “right.”

## Shaping a Problem Makes Overcoming It More Feasible

When students identify a problem, they’re compelled to do something about it; however, if the problem is too large, it can be overwhelming for them. When they’re overwhelmed, they might shut down and stop learning. For that reason, it’s important for them to shape the problem by taking on a piece they can handle.

To help guide students, provide a list of topics and allow them to choose one. In my experience, choosing their own topic prompts students’ curiosity—which drives them to persevere through a challenging task. Additionally, I have students maintain their scope at a school, regional, or national level. Keeping the focus away from an international scope allows them to filter down the number of results when they begin researching. Shaping the problem this way allowed students to address it in a manageable way.

## Students Can Problem-Solve with Purpose

Once students identified a slice of a larger problem that they could manage, they started to read and think about it, collaborate together, and figure out how to solve it. To further support them in taking on a manageable piece of the problem, the parameters of the solution were that it had to be something they could implement immediately. For example, raising \$3 million to build a shelter for those experiencing homelessness in the community isn’t something that students can do tomorrow. Focusing on a solution that could be implemented immediately made it easier for them to come up with viable options.

With the problem shaped down to a manageable piece, students were better able to come up with a solution that would have a big impact. This problem-solving process also invites ingenuity and innovation because it allows teens to critically look at their day-to-day lives and experiences to consider what actions they could take to make a difference in the world. It prompts them to look at their world through a different lens.

When the conditions for inquiry are created by allowing students to problem-find, problem-shape and problem-solve, it allows students to do the following:

• Critically examine their world to identify problems that exist
• Feel empowered because they realize that they can be part of a solution
• Innovate by developing new solutions to old problems

## Put it All Together to Promote Change

Here are two examples of what my grade 11 students came up with when tasked with examining the national news to problem-find, problem-shape, and problem-solve.

Question: How are Indigenous peoples impacted by racism?

Problem-find: The continued racism against Indigenous peoples has led to the families of murdered women not attaining justice, Indigenous peoples not being able to gain employment, and Indigenous communities not being able to access basic necessities like healthcare and clean water.

Problem-shape: A lot of the issues that Indigenous peoples face require government intervention. What can high school teens do to combat these issues?

Problem-solve: Teens need to stop supporting professional sports teams that tokenize Indigenous peoples, and if they see a peer wearing something from such a sports team, we need to educate them about how the team’s logo perpetuates racism.

Topic: People With Disabilities in Canada

Question: What leads students with a hearing impairment to feel excluded?

Problem-find: Students with a hearing impairment struggle to engage with course texts like films and videos.

Problem-shape: A lot of the issues that students with a hearing impairment face in schools require teachers to take action. What can high school teens do to help their hearing-impaired peers feel included?

Problem-solve: When teens share a video on social media, they should turn the closed-captioning on, so that all students can consume the media being shared.

Once my students came up with solutions, they wanted to do something about it and use their voices to engage in global citizenship. This led them to create TikTok and Snapchat videos and Instagram posts that they shared and re-shared among their peer group.

The learning that students engaged in led to their wanting to teach others—which allowed a greater number of students to learn. This whole process engendered conversations about our world and helped them realize that they aren’t powerless; they can do things to initiate change in areas that they’re interested in and passionate about. It allowed them to use their voices to educate others and promote change.

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• Publisher National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
• Publication date 2003
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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.

## Introduction

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?

## Participants

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.

## Intervention

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.

## Limitations

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.

## Implications

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.

## Acknowledgments

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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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]

## Linking Factors and Multiples to Algebraic Reasoning

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In this paper we illustrate how a task has the potential to provide students rich explorations in algebraic reasoning by thoughtfully connecting number concepts to corresponding conceptual underpinnings.

The Ordering for the Holiday Party task is rooted in number and has the potential to give students rich explorations by aligning numerical procedures with conceptual underpinnings.

• BEGINNING THE MATHEMATICAL CONVERSATION
• CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION: MAKING CONNECTIONS USING A PICTORIAL REPRESENTATION
• CONNECTIONS TO MATHEMATICS EXPLORED IN THE FUTURE
• LAST THOUGHTS

## Article References

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Battista , Michael T. 2017 . “ Mathematical Reasoning and Sense Making .” In Reasoning and Sense Making in the Mathematics Classroom: Grades 3–5 . Reston, VA : National Council of Teachers of Mathematics .

Boaler , Jo . 2002 . “ Learning from Teaching: Exploring the Relationship between Reform Curriculum and Equity. ” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 33 , no. 4 (July): 239 – 58 .

Carpenter , Thomas P. , Megan Loef Franke , and Linda Levi . 2003 . Thinking Mathematically: Integrating Arithmetic and Algebra in Elementary School . Portsmouth, NH : Heinemann .

Hiebert , James , and Diana Wearne . 2003 . “ Developing Understanding through Problem Solving .” In Teaching Mathematics through Problem Solving: Grades 6–12 , edited by Randall I. Charles (series ed.) and Harold L. Schoen (volume ed.). Reston, VA : National Council of Teachers of Mathematics .

Henningsen , Marjorie , and Mary Kay Stein . 1997 . “ Mathematical Tasks and Student Cognition: Classroom-Based Factors That Support and Inhibit High-Level Mathematical Thinking and Reasoning. ” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 28 , no. 5 (November): 524 – 49 .

Horn , Ilana Seidel . 2012 . Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics . Reston, VA : National Council of Teachers of Mathematics .

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Marcus , Robin , and James T. Fey . 2003 . “ Selecting Quality Tasks for Problem-Based Teaching .” In Teaching Mathematics through Problem Solving: Grades 6–12 , edited by Randall I. Charles (series ed.) and Harold L. Schoen (volume ed.). Reston, VA : National Council of Teachers of Mathematics .

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National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) . 2014 . Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All . Reston, VA : NCTM .

Nolan , Edward C. , Juli K. Dixon , George J. Roy , and Janet Andreasen . 2016 . Making Sense of Mathematics for Teaching: Grades 6–8 . Bloomington, IN : Solution Tree .

Roy , George J. , Sarah B. Bush , Thomas E. Hodges , and Farshid Safi . 2017 . “ Mathematics Discussions: Expectations Matter. ” Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School 23 , no. 2 (October): 98 – 105 .

Smith , Margaret , and Miraim Gamoran Sherin . 2019 . The 5 Practices in Practice: Successfully Orchestrating Mathematical Discussion in Your Middle School Classroom . Reston, VA : National Council of Teachers of Mathematics .

Smith , Margaret S. , and Mary Kay Stein . 2018 . 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions . 2nd ed. Reston, VA : National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Wood , Marcy B. , James Sheldon , Matthew D. Felton-Koestler , Joy Oslund , Amy Noelle Parks , Sandra Crespo , and Helen Featherstone . 2019 . “ 8 Teaching Moves Supporting Equitable Participation. ” Teaching Children Mathematics 25 , no. 4 (January/February): 218 – 23 .

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## 5 Ways Teachers Can Help Students Overcome ‘Math Trauma’

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Teaching math isn’t just about working through problems. Often, it’s about helping students work through baggage, too.

After years of historic declines in math performance nationwide and sharp post-pandemic spikes in general and math-specific anxiety , teachers may need to help students unpack negative emotions around math to help them gain traction in the subject.

“People are not OK with math; there’s so much trauma surrounding it,” Vanessa Vakharia, a K-12 math teacher and instructional coach in Ontario, Canada, said at the annual National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference here this week.

Vakharia, who had crippling math anxiety until late high school, now chronicles her own and others’ traumatic experiences with math in the Math Therapy podcast. One in 4 K-12 educators reported being math-anxious in a 2019 survey by the EdWeek Research Center, and in a separate survey the center conducted last month, more than 40 percent of math teachers said they’d had at least some math anxiety.

“We’re talking about unpacking trauma, but none of us are therapists,” she said. “This is about how we can do this as educators with our expertise in a way that’s safe in our classroom and that we feel comfortable with.”

She highlighted five steps teachers can take to help students understand and let go of negative math experiences.

## 1. Create a myth-busting mindset.

Often small classroom practices—highlighting students’ wrong answers in front of the class, for example—can undermine students’ math identity, particularly for students from groups historically underrepresented in math, Vakharia said.

“It is a deeply embedded trauma being told what we need to look like, sound like, be like, perform like in order to be good at math, being told you have to shed your identity in order to be good at math,” Vakharia said.

She suggested teachers explicitly bust common misconceptions—such as that math ability is static or that creative or artistic students don’t need math—and quickly counter students’ negative talk about math.

“Let’s say something that’s more accurate,” Vakharia tells her students. “So instead of saying ‘I’m not a math person,’ how about, ‘I don’t feel as comfortable with math as I would like to, but I believe I could if I wanted to.’ That’s actually fair.”

## 2. Help students map out math trauma.

These could include someone dismissing a student’s math struggles by saying they “ can be good at other things ,” media portrayals suggesting that “everybody hates math,” or parents who pressure or yell at their children during math homework (as student tweets like the one below can attest).

my dad explaining me trying to see a math problem the paper thru a for the 374th time blur of tears pic.twitter.com/EJSnfZehcb — Maruf (@m3aruf) September 10, 2019

“Your goal is to figure out what trauma exists in your classroom so that you can adjust your teaching style and your pedagogy, so you know what students will react to,” she said.

For example, Vakharia’s students discuss situations that trigger their anxiety—such as having another student yell “I’m done” while they are still working—and make student and teacher pacts to reduce class stressors.

## 3. Motivate students to persist.

Research suggests the vast majority of math-anxious students aren’t initially low-performers . Rather, the fear and stress they experience before starting math tasks takes up their mental bandwidth and leads them to avoid math-related tasks. Over time, students with severe math anxiety tend to progress more slowly in math, but even math-anxious students who objectively perform on average or even high in math often end up disengaging and avoiding math classes and fields they might otherwise thrive in.

Students with math anxiety tend to choose less-effective ways to study , too, like rereading already-solved problems instead of trying to solve new ones. That makes students less prepared come test time, which can create a cycle of stress, failure, and avoidance .

Some classes keep a “failure wall,” in which students regularly post cards describing mistakes or failures and what they learned from them. The process helps students both reflect on their own learning and realize they are not alone in struggling, Vakharia said.

## 4. Have ‘math identity makeovers.’

“If you ask any kid what being good at math is, they’ll say it means you’re really fast. It means you don’t make any mistakes. It means you always get the right answer. That kind of thing,” Vakharia said. “We have to myth-bust that for them.”

Vakharia advised teachers to use math journals and data reviews to help students analyze their own progress and think about what success means to them.

“When you have a track record of all the things in your class, you can prove that they can get better at a skill. And then you can go farther: Why did you [previously] think that you couldn’t do this? And why do you think you can do it now?’ And they’ll say things like, ‘I practiced,’ or ‘I got some help, I sought these resources.’ ... This is really helpful in bringing a growth mindset to life and myth-bust what it means to be good at math.”

Teachers should also help students to understand that having a disability that interferes with math, like dyscalculia or attention deficit disorders , doesn’t mean they can’t do math or succeed in a math field.

## 5. Measure and highlight progress.

Assessments can be particularly daunting for students with math anxiety. When possible, Vakharia advised teachers to avoid timed tests, and to allow students to talk through feelings of anxiety before assessments.

Second chances are also helpful. For example, when students ask to redo a test or assignment, she asks them to first list how they prepared the first time, and what they plan to do differently this time.

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