An Example of Teaching THROUGH problem solving?

Many math resources attempt to share the difference between teaching FOR problem solving and teaching THROUGH problem solving. Cathy Seeley refers to teaching THROUGH problem solving as “Upside-Down Teaching” which is the opposite of a “gradual release of responsibility” model:

And instead calls for us to flip how our students learn to a more active model:

So, instead of starting a unit on Geometry with naming shapes or developing definitions together, we decided to start with a little problem:

Create as many polygons as possible using exactly 2 pattern block pieces. Sort your polygons by how many sides they have.

As students started placing pattern block pieces together, all kinds of questions started emerging (questions we took note of to bring to the whole group in a few minutes):

What is this shape called? It has 6 sides, so is it a hexagon?
This shape has 12 sides. Am I allowed to do this?
Are these the same shapes or different? Do I have to line up the sides or can I place a shape in the middle like I did here (on the right)?

By the end of a period, students had worked through the definitions of what a polygon is (and isn’t), the difference between concave and convex polygons, defined the term “regular polygon” (which was not what they had been calling “regular” before), and were able to name and create triangles, quadrilaterals, pentagons, hexagons, heptagons, octagons, nonagons, decagons and undecagons. Recognizing a variety of possible ways a shape can look was very helpful for our students who might have experienced shapes more traditionally in the past.

One group compiled their polygons together (with one minor error):

Instead of starting with experiences where students accumulate knowledge (writing out definitions, taking a note, direct instruction), an upside down approach aims to start with students’ ideas. This way we would know which conversations to have with our students, and so our students are actively engaged in the process of learning.

I want to leave you with a few reflective questions:

  • Why might it benefit students to start with a problem instead of starting with the teachers’ ideas?
  • Why might it benefit teachers to listen to students’ thinking before instruction has occurred?
  • What does it mean to effectively monitor students as they are thinking / working? (See This POST for examples)
  • Can all mathematics topics begin with tasks that help our students make connections between what they already know, and what they are learning? Can you think of a topic that can not be experienced this way?
  • The final stage in the You-We-I model is where the teacher helps make specific learning explicit for their students. How do you find time to consolidate a task like this? How do you know what to share? (See This POST for an example)
  • How might this form of teaching relate to how we view assessment? (See This POST)
  • How might this form of teaching relate to how we view differentiated instruction? (See This POST)
  • How do you find problems that ask students to actively think before any instruction has occurred? (See This POST for examples)

I’d love to continue the conversation.  Feel free to write a response, or send me a message on Twitter ( @markchubb3 ).

7 thoughts on “An Example of Teaching THROUGH problem solving?

  1. I’m excited about this article for a couple of reasons. First, my building/principal is all over the I-We-You model for instruction. Thank you for explaining how it is not as effective in math! Second, my 4th graders are beginning the geometry unit next week, and this is a terrific introductory activity. Thanks!


    1. Sorry to hear your building is focused on I-We-You. It is definitely an easier model to expect from teachers… just not a model I believe is as effective for our learners.
      Maybe other teachers in your building could see how powerful teaching THROUGH problem solving can be. How might you share your excitement?


  2. I enjoyed reading this. I’ve written exploring this way of working with students at
    Students naturally want to explore. The projects that I do with students are always materials-intense. The classroom teacher will usually say “Don’t touch anything until you get directions!” While I understand why they say this, I try, whenever I can, to nudge students to look at, touch, and arrange the materials (just don’t start cutting anything!). There is no question in my mind their own initial explorations deepen their connection/enjoyment of/learning of the lesson that follows.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really like the approach of starting students off with the problem first. I think this is a good way to assess what types of prior knowledge they are trying to use in order to figure out the problem. I learned about the idea that students are not wrong when they give incorrect answers, they are just accessing the incorrect prior knowledge they have learned in the wrong learning context. This also goes hand-in-hand with listening to the students before giving them any kind of formal instruction.


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