Dr Ems Lord is a Fellow and Tutor of Clare Hall, and the Director of NRICH, the University of Cambridge’s flagship mathematics outreach project. NRICH provides thousands of free online mathematics resources for ages three to 18, and has recently launched the new Problem-Solving Schools initiative, which aims to create ‘a movement of problem-solving schools’ by providing free learning resources and teacher training to refocus attention on the skill. The initiative has also been supported by Professor Bhaskar Vira, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Cambridge, who said that “NRICH’s high quality resources will help maths teachers embed problem solving in the classroom, as part of Cambridge’s mission to contribute to society through education, learning and research, and equip pupils with this key skill for the future.”
Along with fluency and reasoning, problem solving has been central to the National Curriculum for maths since it was introduced in 2014, but often does not receive the same amount of attention in the classroom. The rise of automation and artificial intelligence suggests a greater need to prioritise problem solving in maths as a critical skill. Dr Lord highlights that there are discrepancies in the quality of teaching problem-solving skills among schools, largely due to the lack of training for teachers and access to sufficient resources, which leads to unequal outcomes of students being prepared for the future landscape of roles and careers. By properly equipping students to problem solve, they’ll be able to tackle future challenges that require uniquely human skills such as critical thinking.
Dr Lord said:
“Problem-solving is not about memorising facts, it’s about being confronted with something for the first time and thinking, ‘Right, how do I use my skills to approach this’? And these are transferrable skills, for all aspects of life, which will help children in the future, not just at work but also socially. We want our young people to have the curiosity and confidence to question things, so if they come across some data or a graph in the media, or wherever, they have the experience and skills to know what a good graph looks like, and they can analyse it for themselves.”
The Problem-Solving Schools initiative will provide themed resources and webinar training on how to best embed the skill in classrooms, and support teachers who might be lacking in confidence themselves, or are unsure how to refocus how they teach the Curriculum. The webinar series will also include tips on engaging parents with maths so they can help support their children in the subject. In a recent study, NRICH’s Solving Together project, which offers family-friendly homework activities, was found to significantly increase parental involvement in the subject.
In addition, a Charter for schools to sign up to is also being introduced. It puts problem solving at the heart of maths learning, from the commitment of the school’s leadership team, to values in the classroom – where good problem-solving behaviour is encouraged, and where it’s ok to make mistakes – to how activities can be widened out to the local community.
The NRICH team has developed the programme in consultation with schools, and has actively sought the views of colleagues in the Department for Education, and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics – the Government’s maths body set up to improve mathematics teaching in England.
And as the team launches its newest initiative, it continues to support post-pandemic catch-up work, by helping fill gaps in knowledge and focusing on students’ attitude to maths.
“It’s not just about doing the maths, it’s about enjoying it and finding it worthwhile – understanding the applications,” says Dr Lord. “If our materials are just about covering subject knowledge it’s really hard for student to enjoy what they’re doing.
Learn more about NRICH and their new initiative here.