(uni)cycle: getting started

What do you do, when you don’t know what to do?

This phrase was always a motivator for me to push the importance of problem solving with my students. Still…I continuously found that my students would stop, freeze, and give up way too fast. No struggle, no squirm, no grit. Was it because the problems were too hard? Was it because they never had to do something on their own before (honestly, we as teachers, me included, tend to give answers and guide students too much and too often) or was is simply that they just didn’t know how or what to try?

Big question. I have no answers yet. But that didn’t mean I gave up trying to figure out some part of this real life equation.

So…problem solving became a heightened focus for me this year to guide my professional growth plan (PGP).

Middle school. I was going to start there. What did they do? With all their time practicing and applying their problem solving skills, what did they know?

I started with a workshop around solving an unknown problem throughout each grade; 6, 7, and 8. Students had the same problem but went about solving it in multiple and various ways. Outcome was great, and by presenting and holding the workshop in various classes, and extending it to grades four and five, I learned a lot about myself too. I do give too much information. I do say too much. I do guide more than I need to.

So after that reflection and experiences, what did I find? That students only use what they know. I knew this. We all know this. So in terms of problem solving, why are problem solving strategies not taught explicitly. Explicitly to expose all students to a variety of methods. Not just in one “way” to do something, but actual steps and methods to try to solve a problem. Solve a problem, sit with it, have perseverance and confidence that they know other things to try, even when stuck. How to get themselves unstuck.

I researched and found that nowhere in the Ontario curriculum, and nowhere in any math continuum did I find that problem solving skills were taught step by step. Actually taught. They are proposed, yes, and they are mentioned, yes. They are even broken up over three pages of the document (pages 11-13), but lose context within the curriculum expectations and outcomes by grade. They were not expectations to meet, or in a manner which students can grow or add to. This was at the discretion of the teacher within their own classroom. So I decided to tackle this in my classroom with focus.

In December and January I held Problem Solving workshops in my grade six, seven, and eight classes. With some more help of the internet, I came across a document created by Middle School Math Moments A template for problem solving with strategies.

So this was a great start. Each day, we went over each strategy (make an organized list, make a table, guess and check, work backwards etc.) and did whole group instruction and followed up with independent practice. At first, students were wondering why we were spending so much time on this. They added each strategy to a problem solving workbook, and were directed to use and consult this book during any problem in class to help them.

It was evident as we went through each strategy, each few days, that the students realized the potential here. I heard ” this is helpful” and “I wish I would have learned this earlier.” Even during my formal check-in, check-outs with the students around this workshop, I received the following feedback…

….”no one taught me this before” WOW! Was I… am I… really onto something here?

I couldn’t stop there. I needed to incorporate and implement this now into their everyday learning. What was coming up? Math Exam!

After each word problem on the exam, (and on the mock exam practice) I placed a list at the bottom where the students had to choose which strategy they used to solve the problem and explain why and how it helped them.

What I found here was two-fold. In practice on the mock exam and on the formal exam, students were able to complete this section with more detail than before in just simply stating “explain your reasoning” or “why does it work?”  The second benefit which I uncovered was that students who were stuck, and in need of prompts, used this list to help them get “un”stuck all on their own. A guide line to cue them back to those strategies we’ve worked so hard on in the workshops. Wasn’t expected, but a pleasant surprise.

Now on each test, I add the list to continue to help guide them.

Next step was to continue the problem solving focus within my middle school classes. I created an Escape Room for grades seven and eight…and YES! they used the strategies again and again! I came across the hashtag on twitter, during my research, #dontstealthestruggle. With more investigation, I also found a great read on how teachers can talk less during problem solving time in classes. This is now the motto of my class. Students even reply back to me, as they are enjoying the “process” (yes, I actually just wrote enjoying) more of not knowing…

Mrs. Cleveland, don’t steal my struggle.


so what now….so what? What’s next?

I decided then to consult an ELT at the school to help me, get me unstuck to how (or even if) this could benefit others at the OJCS, or where if anywhere, the next steps could be. What if…students were exposed to this earlier within their learning? My middle school students commented that they wished they learned it earlier too. So where to go.

Prototype Cycle!

I was already on this journey, and didn’t realize it just yet.

After consultation, feedback, and reflection and more unpacking…this is where I am now.

I am just about to begin the problem solving workshops and folders with a class in the elementary school. Things I am thinking about are:

  • Language changes? Is this needed in the younger grades?
  • Editable documents (I have created an editable document for students that need to type their work)
  • Relatable questions and problems for that grade and connection to current strand and skill being taught.
  • Timing: do younger students in their pedagogical development need more time? More guidance? Do I talk more? Talk less?
  • Collaboration with the classroom teacher. After I leave the room, how can I support the teacher to make it their own? To apply it and be their own problem solving teacher.
  • How can I document the student’s learning here? How can I add their input to enhance the documentation?
  • ….and I’m sure there will be many more.

Now, remember when you were little (if this dates me too much…) where cards were placed in the spokes of our bikes, to make noise as we biked along? I now feel like my cycle, a unicycle at present (slowly growing to two wheels with another try and experience with another teacher) is gaining speed, but with more roar. More amplification and more noise as the cards plunk against each spoke, increasing the sound.

…stay tuned as I continue to prototype “cylcle” around with this attempt and trial, and new implementation in a different space and grade. There will be fails, and skins on my knees if/when I fall off…but I have a feeling, as I begin to gain more wheels on my bike, and with more cards in my spokes, we’ll get somewhere…and we can solve a problem around problem solving…

….more to come…




  1. @Chelsea
    So, excited to read more about your passion for problem solving skills to be taught explicitly and not just as an “as needed” or “in case it comes up”.

    For me, problem solving skills are intrinsically linked to curiosity, inquiry and skills to ask good questions.

    Alan November has advocated for years that we need to support our students in becoming better question ASKERS and not just good in ANSWERING questions. You can read more about it around resources of the #1st5days

    I just ordered the book “Hacking Questions: 11 Answers That Create a Culture of Inquiry in Your Classroom” by Connie Hamilton and am super excited to see how she is able to connect this… I will let you know 🙂


    • Thanks, Silvia. I’d be very excited to hear too about your thoughts on the book.
      I think problem solving is about asking questions in several ways. One is about if we just accept things as they are, not ask why, or how come, or why not, we can’t look at a problem through and/or with varying viewpoints or “outside the box” thinking. Also this is when collaboration is a huge component, as all minds look and view scenarios differently; what one person sees, may not be at all what another person notices. Which leads me to another area in which questions are also important to/for problem solving steps/skills. Asking MEANINGFUL questions and questions that have a real world existence are important. Otherwise you are just gaining level 1 material (basic understanding and computation) in a fancier form. Looking and asking higher level open ended questions allow for students to really not just absorb the material needed and apply it for problem solving, but more importantly make rich connections that promote more of purpose 1: why, why not, what if…a very inquisitive cycle of how important questions are, (if asked in a purposeful manner)


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