Problem solving with my pupils always seemed to follow the same three stages.

Stage 1 – The ‘stuck’ stage

“Sir! I don’t know what to do!”

Stage 2 – The really ‘stuck’ stage

“Please! Sir! I’m really stuck!”

Stage 3 – So ‘stuck’ I can’t be assed stage

“Dave, You play FIFA last night?”


At this start of this year I’ve had the pleasure (and i’m not being sarcastic) of working with a series of low ability classes.

Where in the past I’ve had pupils who have struggled to answer questions but muddled through in the end, I now had pupils who refused to even put pen to paper and try something! Whilst it had made marking exam scripts a breeze (page after page of nothingness!), the levels of progress the pupils were making in class was not reflected in assessment.

At the start of the year my class had no resilience.

They looked at a non-direct question and they panicked. They looked at it. Looked at it some more. Then they moved on. No writing, Nothing.

It’s something we’ve been working on all year and it’s only now we seem to be making any progress.

I’ve noticed several stages that my pupil have gone through this year.

Fear Stage

They all began here. they looked at a question and instantly became overwhelmed, panicked slightly then turned the page/ Went mute/ Looked around the room for any kind of help.

It took a while to transcend this stage and it wasn’t done through scaffolding or anything like that (if anything the scaffolding seemed to confuse them more!), it was done through talking to them about their fears. Admitting that these questions were intimidating and generally building a good secure teacher/pupil relationship with them. Once they understood that I wasn’t looking for them to give correct answers straight away but to try and show some basic maths some of the fear passed.

Confusion Stage

My pupil’s were ready for anything!

It was a beautiful day, They weren’t scared!

*pops a question in front of them*

*still no writing!*

Yes, they weren’t scared. They just had no idea of how to even begin answering the question. They looked at it, put their hands in the air and asked questions, lots of questions. Usually a happy thing but all the questions were variants of the same one!

“How do I do this?!”

So I began my own questioning strands. What do we notice? What do you think it wants you to do?

Eventually with enough thought and a lot of group discussions some progress was made.

Lack of Real Independence Stage

Despite all this, assessment results were still poor. They did not reflect the ability of my pupils.

In groups they were able to ask each other prompting questions, bounce ideas back and forth and usually come to a point where a couple of marks were hard won.

Just not whilst on their own. This was the last mental block affecting my pupils as far as I could see! We had covered all the maths they needed to solve the questions, they had shown me they had capability in the classroom and now they needed to show themselves that!


This is one of the reasons I spent quite a bit of time thinking about/ working on my own questioning strategies, creating a set list of questions I would use over and over again. Questions I knew could help the pupils to pick up at least one mark!

I began to trial STBO’s (state the bloomn’ obvious)  in my class and ask pupil to ATBO’s  (apply the bloomin’ obvious) independent of the question before giving a final answer.

In (not so) short I asked them to:

– Look at the question

– Write down everything about the question you can (numbers, key words, skills you may think are required.

– Do some maths with the stuff you got from the last bit, but ignore the question. Don’t look at it! Just do some maths! Do the stuff you’ve been doing all year to great effect!

– NOW look back at the question. how do your answers fit into this?

– Now answer the question.

This seemed to have an impact but it was messy. It had no order or structure and was an absolute nightmare to mark! Questions and answers were EVERYWHERE! There didn’t seem to be any links.

Because of this I began working on the template I shared in my last post.

problem solving planning mattm2

It’s been a long year working on various aspects of how I teach problem solving as well as making sure the little darlings got the basics they lacked as well but we’re finally at a point where I can feel more confident that my pupils will be able to attempt a problem solving question in a systematic way and pick up at least a mark along the way.

My long term hope is that approaching each question in the same formulaic approach (for now at least!) will allow them to go into an assessment with some mental tools and strategies needed for the questions.

Below is a series of questions I posed and the completed Problem solving sheets from one of my classes.1




Now there are some problems with the above examples (75% = 0.75% being one of them!) but it’s a far cry from what I began with!

Download, Adapt, Try for yourself!

problem solving planning matt

But most of all, if you have an opinion, please comment!


Andy x