He can add up, so what's the problem?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 10:38am

My son's teacher has said he is not good at problem solving, which is ridiculous. He has been in after-school maths programmes for two years and can do all his multiplication tables. He is very good at solving problems rapidly. How can I prove her wrong?

You may be talking about two separate things here. Some children are numerically proficient but can't come up with alternative solutions to a logical problem.

Most of us follow a similar path when solving problems. But there are those who can see other ways around them, and can do it more quickly, too. Schools are trying to enhance this kind of alternate way of thinking.

Analysing a problem carefully to try and understand what is being asked is the key. Teachers may throw in extra information, or red herrings like homonyms, to distract students. This helps them develop the skills to break problems apart and recognise the pieces.

With real-life problems, understanding the underlying issue goes beyond what is being said. We've all seen people who are angry and act irrationally when trying to deal with a problem. But anger clouds judgement. Good problem solvers keep calm and try to find out what is wrong.

Problem solvers have a sensitivity to people and a strong awareness of logic, as well as the confidence to communicate it effectively.

This is probably well beyond what your teacher is talking about, but it is part of the path they are trying to show your son. Listen carefully to the details, understand what the real problem is, and work towards a positive, fair solution.

Some activities give students practice with working more methodically, finding a step-by-step solution and putting it into practice. Others show them skills and techniques to help them find the core of a problem.

Role play is great for young children, especially if used to learn how to solve playground disputes and how to work together. Understanding how a friend feels when they are not invited to play is made clearer when groups present solutions in small plays. An additional discussion can help the class see effective solutions.

Drawing a picture or using small toys for role play can make the words more realistic and easier to see.

Sometimes it is hard for a child to understand how he should share his biscuits until you draw them on plates and see how many everyone gets. Creative problems stimulate creative problem solving.

Other times, students need teachers to model ways of working through all the options. Some of this modelling can be part of the teaching which children then can copy and integrate in their own work. Many children come to define success as coming up with the answer faster than others.

Drilling enables rapid number crunching, and this is needed in some aspects of maths. But it does not help much beyond maths, and that is what your son's teacher is trying to tell you. Work with her on this. Help him develop as a thinker.

Ask him why he thinks someone is acting in a certain way, or why something happened the way it did. Talk to him about the background to a situation, and see if his ideas change. Developing flexibility in thinking goes a long way towards becoming a problem solver.

Help him to see why thinking outside the box is sometimes needed. Be open to talking about how and why things happen so he can see how a small change can lead to a better outcome.

Help him to look at all the elements of a process, and reflect on which are essential, enhancing, or superfluous. As his awareness of a problem deepens, so will his ability to solve it.

Kris Gienger teaches at a Hong Kong international primary school