Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Supporting mathematical problem-solving skills in the early years

EEF blog: Supporting mathematical problem-solving skills in the early years

Exploring early maths
Lauren Grocott
Lauren Grocott
Content Specialist for the Early Years

Lauren Grocott, our Early Years Content Specialist at EEF has over 17 years of experience in the education sector. In this blog, she introduces one of the approaches from the new Early Mathematics theme in the Early Years Evidence Store.

Blog •3 minutes •

We know that being evidence-informed’ is crucial for developing practice in the early years. But sometimes, translating research into day-to-day practice can feel complicated.

Using high-quality research evidence can help us to identify approaches that are worth investing more time into and those which are not.

The new Early Mathematics theme in the Early Years Evidence Store looks at five specific approaches to support early maths development. Luckily, opportunities to use one of these approaches often hide in plain sight.

Approach 3: Teaching problem-solving skills for maths

Puzzling maths problems crop up every day in our settings. They are so common, in fact, that they can become camouflaged in amongst the busyness of the day:

What is the best way to make the base of the block tower stable? What can we do when there are not enough chairs to sit at the snack table? How much more sand can we fit into this bucket?

Some problems have more than one solution or process to find a response; others may stump even the most experienced educator! This begs the question: how can we teach problem-solving skills for maths?

A range of options for practice

Evidence tells us that explicitly teaching problem-solving skills is effective when combined with other approaches. A multi-pronged approach is particularly important for children from lower-income homes or those at greater risk of not meeting expected levels of development.

The list of suggested ways an educator can teach problem-solving skills for maths includes:

  • Thinking aloud
  • Modelling using representations (eg: manipulatives or drawings) to solve a mathematical problem
  • Reminding
  • Providing a menu of strategies
  • Reflecting
  • Narrating
  • Using mistakes as teaching and learning opportunities.

Full descriptions of these practices, along with video and written examples, can be found on the approaches page of the Evidence Store.

As most studies look at the effectiveness of using multiple approaches and practices, it is difficult to pinpoint which are the most influential. Evidence does, however, highlight some specific practices for teaching problem-solving skills for maths that can help children’s maths development, such as thinking aloud, modelling using representations and problem-solving strategies, and reminding children to use problem-solving techniques (highlighted in bold above).

As with other areas of learning, breaking problems down into chunks and scaffolding learning was an effective way of teaching problem-solving skills for maths.

Approach in action

Watch this example approach video of Steve, who has used a familiar story to create opportunities for teaching problem-solving skills for maths with a small group of three- and four-year-old children.

Caterpillar Food Problems

These shorter clips highlight examples of the specific practices Steve has used to implement the approach of teaching problem-solving skills.

Caterpillar food

The bigger picture

Let’s reflect on the approach of teaching problem-solving skills in the context of your own setting.

You could consider:

  • Three ways educators already support problem-solving skills for maths in your setting.
  • Two practices that are less common in your setting.
  • One potential barrier to effective implementation of a new approach.

With this information in mind, what are the missing pieces of the puzzle for teaching problem-solving skills for mathematics in your setting?

For more information, you can explore the other approaches for supporting early mathematics in the Evidence Store.

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