Many Asians like us who live in the United States feel proud to say that our math skills are better than those of the Americans. Having good math skills helps — there is no doubt in it. However, there is a significant difference between math skills and problem-solving skills. One thing I have noticed during the past few years (after my child started to go to the elementary school) is that the US education system focuses more on problem-solving skills than tools or instruments.
The difference between math skills and problem-solving skills
When I ask an elementary school kid — divide 365 by 7 — the child immediately does the math and provides me with the quotient and the remainder. If I ask the child how many weeks are there in a year, the child fails to interpret the question, even though the child knows that seven days make a week and 365 days make a year.
The first task — dividing 365 by 7 — requires math skill. The second task — how many weeks are there in a year — needs the problem-solving ability. This is merely an example, but hopefully, the difference between math skills and problem-solving skills is clear from the example.
Which one should we promote — development of math skills or problem-solving skills?
The answer to the question is “both”. Math is a tool or an instrument, using which people solve problems. When you teach your child addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division in the elementary school, please expose your child to problem-solving.
Since visitors to our website are from many different countries, I should mention that “Elementary school” is what is called “primary school” in many Asian countries. Basically, it refers to the first six years of formal education — kindergarten, 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade.
How can we expose our children to problem-solving?
Exposing children to problem-solving need not be tricky, but it requires attention from parents. The moment I say, “we should expose our children to problem-solving,” many parents immediately ask, “what are some books on problem-solving for elementary school kids?”
I feel that institutionalizing “problem-solving” is not the best way to teach problem-solving to young kids. I prefer practicing problem-solving as a part of family activities.
Examples of problem-solving in daily activities
I am providing some example problems below.
- An apple costs 50 cents, and an orange costs 60 cents. How much do the apples and oranges cost in this basket? [Put two oranges and four apples in the basket and then ask the kid this question. Change the problem based on the availability of fruits in your location.]
- Design questions using your child’s favorite animals. My child likes dinosaurs, which are extinct but good enough to develop the problem-solving skills of a child. A herd of fifty apatosauruses lived in the northern grassland of Laurasia. Half of the apatosauruses of the northern grassland migrated to the southern grassland. Ten apatosauruses from the western grassland moved to the northern grassland. How many apatosauruses are there in the northern grassland of Laurasia now?
- Counting food calories can be an excellent exercise for children, mainly because it will connect math-related problem-solving with a healthy lifestyle. (In fact, I give a “Counting calories” programming problem to my early-stage bachelors-level class.) A little bit of research — like how many calories are there in a cup of steamed rice, a cup of asparagus cuts, or a four-ounce drumstick — can make the counting exercise quite exciting for children. Elementary school kids need 1,600 to 2,200 calories daily. Ask your child how many calories she/he consumed in a meal. Consciousness regarding calories will provide the added benefit of healthy living in your child’s life.
The examples above are something I came up with for the sake of writing this article. In practice, you will have to come up with problems that fit the surroundings of your children. Our parental mindset of “fun” has to be “learning is fun.” Learning does not have to be conscious; it can be when you are in the backyard with your children; learning can take place during family meals; it can be when you are shopping with your children. How you will teach your child problem-solving can be best answered by you. No book, no tutor, and no school can teach your child problem-solving as effectively as you.
Problem-solving and analytical ability
Exposing your children to problem-solving in the early elementary stage is as essential as teaching them addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Again, arithmetic is the tool to solve problems. The practice of problem-solving will help your child realize how to use the tools under different circumstances. That is, your child will improve her/his analytical ability with problem-solving.
By helping our children develop the analytical ability, we can ensure that they can address problems that they never were exposed to. It is precisely all that the following proverb is about.
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Steps to problem-solving relevant to elementary school arithmetic
There are many steps to problem-solving. In computing (in Computer Science), the steps are extensive. Problem-solving relevant to elementary school arithmetic need not be that comprehensive. However, we need to familiarize our kids with a few steps of problem-solving. I would suggest the following steps to solve any problem relevant to elementary school arithmetic.
- Analyze the problem: Analysis of a problem helps a child develop an understanding of the problem. Regardless of the difficulty of the solution, the problem itself must raise interest to the child. If the child does not understand the problem, then trying to solve it might be boring to the child. In the early stage, parents may help an elementary school child analyze the problem, but over time, the child should be able to analyze problems herself/himself.
- Outline possible solutions: In this stage, the child should connect parts of the problem to certain arithmetic operations (like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.) The child should plan a sequence of arithmetic operations to solve the overall problem.
- Compute: The child will perform the actual computations in this stage. The associated skill in this stage is the general ability to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. That is, in this stage, the child applies her/his math skills.
- Evaluate: This stage is ignored most of the times. In this stage, the child should verify if the result is correct or wrong. Verification can be done in many ways. One is redoing all the stages. Another is reverse calculations, which might be a bit hard at first, but your child will eventually understand it with practice. One example is provided here: if your child comes up with the result 20 by subtracting 10 from 30, then she/he can add 10 with 20 to check if the result is 30. Evaluation of solutions can be quite complicated based on the complexity of the problems. Being able to evaluate will open another dimension of math to your child.
The biggest mistake while teaching kids math
By this time, you know the topic of this article. It is not just about teaching kids math. I am an advocate of teaching problem-solving to kids. The biggest mistake while teaching kids math is that we forget to include the problem-solving aspect. When we miss problem-solving, our kids learn all the procedural math in the world — including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus — but they cannot use the math to solve problems effectively when they enter the workforce. Therefore, we need to teach our children how to fish instead of giving them fish — figuratively speaking.
Tips on how to develop problem-solving skills in children
- Develop a family culture to practice problem-solving.
- Ask your child to solve arithmetic problems that are connected to real-life.
- Use your child’s interest to develop problem-solving skills relevant to arithmetic. (Example: the dinosaur problem.)
- Make problem-solving a fun family activity.
- Problem-solving with your children will not only help them develop their skills but also will make memories. Kids appreciate your company. Problem-solving is a great way to enjoy quality time with your children. No tutor can (and should) replace you.
There can be many more strategies to help kids develop problem-solving skills. Please feel free to add more tips, on teaching kids math, in the comments section below.
Dr. Shahriar Hossain