Problem Solving Classroom

Tips from a Master Teacher (This is a work in progress.)

Comfortable with Uncomfortable

by Mark Illingworth
Comfortable with Uncomfortable
This is Going to Be a Bumpy Ride

I don’t know how far along the continuum of becoming a problem solving teacher you are, but I know that if you’re at the beginning stages, you can expect lots of discomfort in your classroom. You need to be okay with that.

Changing Your Role

Conducting a great problem-solving session is a far cry from the traditional role of the teacher as the dispenser of knowledge at the front of the class. As I discuss in Superhero in Training, you’ll be spending a lot more time listening and a lot less time talking. It’s kind of hard to give up the role of being the Wizard, but you’re going to find in the long run that watching the amazing ways in which your students are going to grow will far outweigh your giving up always standing at the helm.

Watching Them Struggle

It’s also uncomfortable at first watching your students struggle. We like our students to have the answers so much that we sometimes are guilty of revealing too much of the solution path. If you’ve taken the time to learn about growth mindset—and I hope you have—you’ll value the struggle.

I once had a very good administrator observe my class on a day where I had given the students a particularly difficult set of challenges that I had never given before. They were stuck for a long time. Although they eventually worked through to the other side of their struggles, the administrator was out of that room by then, and she wrote on my evaluation, “The students were unable to figure out the material, and they struggled a lot. Perhaps more direct instruction is in order.”

This brings up the next point, which is that there will be those watching what you are doing who won’t understand the value of the thinking skills and perseverance that students will develop through the struggle. This includes administrators, parents, and even students. You’re going to have to be ready to educate others, which you’ll be better prepared to do after you have been running a problem-solving classroom for a few years.

Not Always the Expert

You also have to learn to be comfortable not knowing everything. If the students are working in trios solving a set of challenges and you’re circulating asking leading questions as needed, then you have to be able to adapt on the fly. One group’s questions are not at all like another’s. It’s not so predictable.

Sometimes, students will come up with insights that you don’t understand right away. That’s a lot more disconcerting than knowing all the answers to worksheet #47 because you’ve done it 14 times already. If you have created a classroom environment in which students feel comfortable being vulnerable when they don’t “get” something, then you can be vulnerable as well. Under these circumstances, it’s very exciting when you get to the point where your students show you a better way to do something, and you can be unreservedly enthusiastic.

Be Patient… with Yourself

I know that for some of you, the things I have described are very uncomfortable. I don’t underestimate the weight implied by shifting not only the way you teach but the role you play. I encourage you to keep your eyes on the prize—which is seeing your students able to think flexibly, creatively, and confidently to tackle big challenges or even to come up with original mathematical ideas. Hang in there. Be patient and kind to yourself. I know from coaching other teachers through this process that you will adapt and thrive within an exciting problem-solving classroom. Watching this happen for students is easily one of the highlights of my career.

By the Way

I should mention that although some students will be thrilled with the new diet you are offering them. there will be some who will be uncomfortable with your asking them to think harder than before and even to struggle. I’ll address that separately under the Affective Education articles.

Article Topics

In a Nutshell


If you're just starting out in creating a problem-solving classroom, there will be a lot of new things to get used to. Be calm. It's part of the process, and it takes time.


Both you and your students will need to learn to feel comfortable not always knowing everything. It's part of the excellent, exciting classroom atmosphere you'll build.


There are administrators, parents, and students who won't understand the ways in which you're helping your students grow. As you get better at running a problem-solving classroom, you'll need to take on the task of educating these stakeholders.

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