The very last thing I want to do is tell children how to think. Actually, I would like to ‘tell’ them as little as possible..

We have been working on ‘word problems’ and understanding for some time now, as I recognised early this year that my class found it challenging to impose mathematical thinking on problems presented in unfamiliar ways. They are great at looking at one method per lesson, then applying it over and over, but as with many 8 year olds, choosing a method to apply to a situation is more challenging. We have looked at lots of problems, pulled them apart and asked the question ‘What is the Maths?’.

I am aware that I sometimes approach things like this in a bit of a woolly way. Personally I always tried to deeply understand what I did in school, and that has lead to a personal learning style with a very literary aesthetic where I like to look at a problem from all the different angles, wallow in it, and ‘feel’ my way to a solution. I see this in the higher achievers in my class, but I also see that those lower achieving pupils do not have the mastery, confidence, or sometimes the inclination, to approach problems in this way.

Ideally I would love to try to encourage that kind of thinking in all my pupils, but I recognise that within the system we work in many of them need the support of the structural procedure to move through the curriculum at the pace required.

Having approached word problems in the kind of way I would choose to for a short time, I decided it was time to give the option for a more structured approach. I borrowed from a colleague the ‘RUCSAC’ method, a step by step formula for looking at word problems. I explained this procedure to my class, and we had a go at breaking it down, and following it to complete problems. I thought that lots of them would find this much more straightforward, and admit I beat myself up about having spent some time on a more wooly approach.

Towards the end of the lesson I asked a child to give us an explanation of how she had solved a particular problem. Rather than explaining it using the procedure she produced a rambling verbal explanation along the lines of the thinking I would have used to solve it. This created an interesting discussion, because although she had solved it and used a good method, I had to highlight the fact the she hadn’t really touched on ‘RUCSAC’.

I decided this was an interesting point, and one worth exploring. I explained to the children that she had come up with a great way of solving the problem, but I would have described it as a ‘wordy way’ with lots of explanation and thinking. The alternative was a way along the lines of the RUCSAC method, a straightforward procedure which you could follow through in sequence. I made the mistake of saying that the ‘wordy way’ was probably the way I would do it, but that I realised that the procedural way was probably what a lot of people liked, and in many ways it was a better way.

Out of interest I asked them to put their hands up to show the approach they preferred, and all but one of them indicated the ‘wordy way’ was their preference. I *know* that the learning styles of many of them would be more suited to the procedural way.

We have such influence as teachers of children, I think we need to be really careful with it.

## Leave a Reply