REAL Problem Solving at the Elementary Level

One of the things that I struggle with as an educator, is how to incorporate real problem solving in mathematics instruction.  As an adult, I don’t sit down and think about how if Johnny gave me 3 apples and Julie took 1, how many I would have left.  That type of simple math is probably useful for K-1, but not for 2nd grade and beyond. The intermediate grades are READY for multi-step, complex problems that require creativity and critical thinking.  The problems that are part of our math series are not deep, nor are they relevant to student’s lives. They don’t differentiate for gifted and talented students, and they definitely aren’t always appropriate for students with special needs.

Last year when I handed out the Problem of the Day book, supplied by our math series, I cringed a little.  Students didn’t open up these books the same way they open up a book like Harry Potter. There was no excitement, the general feeling was very “blah” in the room.  I know that there has to be a better way.

So, like any teacher, I turned to Google to solve my problems.

“elementary problem solving”

“project based problem solving”

“motivating elementary problems”

There is really not a lot out there.  There are suggested ideas and a few projects here and there, but the majority of the problems are for middle school and higher.  With the new Common Core State Standards and the up and coming Smarter Balance Assessment, I knew that what we currently have isn’t enough.

I have introduced some problems each year, and each year they get better and better.  I will keep on searching for more, as well as continue to tweak what I have.  The best place I have found ideas has been on Twitter, where someone’s language arts lesson prompts me to think of how I could do a similar project in math. Here are some of the problems I currently do, and I am slowly uploading them to share in Resources for Educators:

Book Order Analysis
The Float Challenge
Housing Market Analysis
Mini Golf Course Geometry
Wind Powered Car
Classroom Economy
The Great Air and Water Craft Extravaganza
Desert Hike
Elementary Architect
The Last Summer Picnic
Restaurant Dreams
Family Reunions
Desert Island Playlist

We’re getting there but it’s coming slowly. Join me by posting any of your ideas and products in the comments area!



  1. This makes me think of the history(at least, my very limited knowledge) of children’s books. The transition from a dull series of examples that emphasized simple grammatical structure, to a focus on word-play, imagination, and story arcs seems to be exactly what early mathematics needs. Why can’t early math textbooks have a story? Maybe begin by telling us who Johnny is, and move on to the problem. If Johnny gave me 3 apples, and Julie gave me 4, how many apples do I have? Then continue the story on page 7. Then after another bit of storyline, have another problem built in, and have the answer tell you where to go next. It’s not enough to have problems, even engaging ones that stand alone, for kids to really make the connections we want them to they have to have a reason to. If reading teaches us anything it’s that the number of words you look at, and the pages you flip mean nothing if the student doesn’t care enough to remember the story. There’s no reason we can’t do the same in math.



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