In some ways, math is entirely about solving problems. The earliest uses of math were to solve problems involving counting, measuring, and distributing. Even the cutting edge math today is evolving through solving problems—some more practical, some more theoretical in nature. The point is that, to succeed in math, students must become comfortable in solving problems. And if you, as a paraprofessional, want to be successful in helping students learn math, then you should become comfortable in solving problems also.
In this unit, you learned about a classic method that is general enough to solve all kinds of problems—even ones that aren’t necessarily related to math! This generality is the primary strength of Polya’s method. Given any problem, you can try to understand it (Step 1), make a plan to solve it (Step 2), execute the plan (Step 3), and then reflect back on how you solved the problem (Step 4). Figure 1details the flow of Polya’s problem-solving method.
A weakness of Polya’s method is that it does not provide specific guidance on which strategy to use in Step 2 for any given problem. Although the webinar covered several of the most useful strategies, there are countless other strategies. Getting to know about these strategies—and becoming comfortable with using them—is a process that will likely take the entirety of your career. The good news is that you will steadily get more familiar with the strategies. In fact, if you regularly practice Step 4 of Polya’s method by reflecting on how you and your students solve problems, you will develop this skill even more rapidly!
But problem solving is much more than coming up with effective and systematic ways to help students get their math homework done. Have you ever wondered why educators are so insistent about forcing everyone to take so much math throughout their schooling? Why is math a central area that all students—regardless of their field of interest—must pass in order to graduate high school? There are several reasons, but one of the main ones centers on problem solving. We all face problems every day of our lives, and so it makes sense that the education system should somehow prepare us for those problems. Through learning the systematic logic of math, we are more prepared to handle our problems in a rational and successful way. So, as you help students develop their problem solving skills, keep in mind that you are ultimately helping them succeed in life beyond school!