‘AI means maths problem-solving skills are more important than ever’

Cambridge bolsters classroom learning with new 'Problem-Solving Schools' initiative

Credit: Phil Boorman

Credit: Phil Boorman

Mathematicians at the University of Cambridge are supporting UK schools to help prioritise problem solving in maths – a key skill that is likely to become ever more critical with the rise of automation and artificial intelligence.

The new Problem-Solving Schools initiative, developed by the University’s Faculty of Mathematics, aims to create ‘a movement of problem-solving schools’ by providing free learning resources and teacher training to refocus attention on the skill.  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.

In the summer, Ofsted published new guidance encouraging schools to focus more consistently on teaching problem solving, and emphasised the importance of teaching skills that “equip [pupils] for the next stage of education, work and life”.

Dr Ems Lord, Director of NRICH, which provides thousands of free online mathematics resources for ages three to 18, and is launching Problem-Solving Schools, said: “It's fair to say that many schools feel increasingly confident supporting fluency and reasoning skills, and there’s a lot of support out there. What’s been missing is the problem-solving aspect, and that’s been repeatedly picked up by Ofsted. It’s not being prioritised, often because of a lack of training for teachers and a lack of access to sufficient, high-quality resources to support it.

Dr Ems Lord at the University's Maths Faculty. Credit: Nathan Pitt

Dr Ems Lord at the University's Maths Faculty. Credit: Nathan Pitt

“Some schools are not covering it as well as others, so it means we’re in this very patchy landscape and at the same time we have AI coming in, with everyone thinking about how that will impact future roles and careers. And it’s looking increasingly likely that students who are good problem solvers, and have good teamwork skills, are the ones who are going to thrive.”

Although AI is developing rapidly, Dr Lord says at present problem solving isn’t one of its strong points. And business analysts believe that in the future jobs which computers cannot perform ­– that require uniquely human skills such as critical thinking ­– will become more significant and those with these skills will be in even more demand.

“I can put our problems into an AI system, some it can solve, some it gives ridiculous answers to. But how would someone know which is which unless they know how to solve the problem themselves – or even know what question to ask to get the answer they’re after?

“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.

“It’s such an important area that we have to get right, and at the moment we’re not doing it. The whole point of learning maths is to be able to solve problems.”

Dr Lord says the Problem-Solving Schools initiative aims to help embed the skill in classrooms by providing themed resources and webinar training on how to best use them – to 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.

'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?'

- Dr Ems Lord, Director of NRICH

Pupils using NRICH maths resources. Credit: University of Cambridge

Pupils using NRICH maths resources. Credit: University of Cambridge

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.

“Many of the resources given to teachers up to this point have focused on fluency, and if a teacher isn’t mathematically trained they tend to revert to where they feel safe, how they were taught,” says Dr Lord. “We need to break the mould on that, we need to make sure there are good resources available for problem-solving learning, and free training, so it isn’t a case of ‘we should be doing this’, but, ‘why wouldn’t we be doing this?’

“We’ve created a complete, wraparound package. We’re looking for schools across the country to sign up to the Charter, create a movement of problem-solving schools and change the agenda.”

Professor Bhaskar Vira, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Cambridge, said: “Problem-Solving Schools is an exciting initiative that builds on the University’s work to support schools around the country through outreach and learning. 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.”

As part of the Problem-Solving Schools launch, NRICH is developing its resources, which have been supporting learners since the outreach programme’s launch 25 years ago, and recently made a huge contribution to the national effort during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Between March and September 2020, nrich.maths.org registered a 95% increase in UK visits compared to the previous year. In the 2020–21 school year alone, the site attracted just under 33 million page views. In spring 2020, the UK Government highlighted NRICH resources to schools and the team contributed to the BBC’s heavily used Bitesize maths resources.

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.

“It’s a bit like having never seen Messi score a goal. If all you’ve done is go to football practice, where the coach puts down markers and tells you to dribble through them for an hour, and you come back the next week and do exactly the same thing, you kind of wonder why you’re doing it.

“But if you go to football practice and then switch on the TV and see a Messi wonder goal – it’s like ‘Aah – that’s what it’s all about!’ And I sometimes think that’s what’s missing when we talk about maths – the sheer moments of awe and wonder that you can have, and that feeling when you solve a problem which is absolutely fantastic!”

Credit: University of Cambridge

Credit: University of Cambridge

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