Problem Solving Classroom

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

Think Like a Fifth Grade Teacher

by Mark Illingworth
Think Like a Fifth Grade Teacher
You Are More Than a Library

Whether or not you signed up to be a coach, you are one. If you are truly creating a problem-solving classroom in which students face difficult challenges and where failure is embraced as part of the process, then you must support your mathletes. You can’t be the Pez dispenser of knowledge anymore. Like a fifth grade teacher, you have to consider the students' affective growth.

Ideally, you’re in a school where students have been routinely doing work that develops higher-order thinking for years. Realistically, this is probably not the case. You’ll be asking these students to stumble and delay gratification more than they have in the past. This will have repercussions that you must be aware of and that you must address.

Think Like a Student

Take a moment to get inside your students’ heads. Students are used to a routine. They listen to a lesson, take notes, and then go home and solve the problems on the textbook homework assignment. Most of the problems involve memorizing a technique, and most of the word problems involve a single step. They know what technique to apply because it’s predictably based on the section in the book they’re studying. This all feels safe and reliable. Then you come along and mess this all up by asking them to analyze, evaluate, and create and to use varied to techniques to solve complex and sometimes open-ended problems. You are the big bad wolf.

A lot of my energy was spent coaching students to feel okay about not being able to solve challenges immediately. This was especially true in honors classes in which students’ identity is closely tied to their good grades. They felt bad about themselves when they couldn't get answers immediately, and they worried about what it would do to their grade and their GPA and their class rank and…and…and…their entire futures. They also worried about their parents who also had not learned to see the value in being stumped and having to struggle and who sometimes valued grades more than true growth.

What Fifth Grade Taught Me

After leaving my engineering career but before teaching high school, I was a fifth grade teacher. I routinely thought about the overall growth of my students, which included addressing their affective needs. It comes with the job. What I’m suggesting is that if you are pushing your students as they deserve to be pushed, then paying attention to things like self-confidence, willingness to tackle difficult things, and ability to overcome adversity comes with the territory. At least you don’t have to zip jackets.

Put Your Grades Where Your Mouth Is

For starters, make sure you have a grading scheme that encourages and supports students instead of punishing them. Your evaluation procedures reflect what you value, so if these procedures are not aligned with what you tell students is important, they won’t believe you for a second. This blog will have articles that suggest alternative assessment methods. Your choices can make or break a fantastic problem solving classroom.

Growth Mindset

Next, learn about growth mindset. Read the works by Carolyn Dweck and Jo Boaler. I think this is some of the most important work done in recent years. Don’t just learn about growth mindset yourself; discuss it with your students. The growth and strengthening of neural pathways is their justification for pushing  themselves to think at higher levels. It’s also their justification for being willing to struggle in order to develop self-confidence. Have these discussions about the non-math ways in which your students are growing with them. You don't need to be the wizard behind the curtain.

Be Ready to Step in as the Coach

Also, be on the lookout for students whose self-esteem plummets because you have pushed them out of their comfort zone. They’re not used to having to struggle, so it’s uncomfortable for them. I have had many very talented students develop the erroneous impression that they’re not good at math. You’ll need to catch these students when they’re falling and help them get their confidence back so they can get back in the game. I can’t tell you exactly what to say or do because every case is different. I know that many of you already do this. I just wanted to remind you that this aspect of your problem-solving classroom is every bit as important of the challenges you offer. You are not just the teacher; you are the coach.

Article Topics

In a Nutshell


Part of creating a problem-solving classroom requires that you strive to help students develop a willingness to tackle difficult things, the perseverance to work through adversity, and the self-confidence they need to know they're okay even when they're not "getting it" right away.


Develop assessment systems that nurture growth. Read the articles in this blog on alternative assessment.


Learn about growth mindset from the recommended resources.


Be the coach and not just the Pez dispenser of math techniques.

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