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Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252

Teachers pedagogies and their impact on students

mathematical problem solving
Kai Fai Ho a, , John G. Hedberg b
a Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University,
7-03-118G, 1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616, Singapore
b Australian Centre for Educational Studies, Macquarie University, Australia

Available online 30 September 2005

This paper examines the classroom practices of three teachers teaching mathematics at the 5th grade level in three Singapore
schools. Using a video-coding scheme, a series of lessons was coded into relevant phases comprising problem solving, teaching
concepts/skills, going over assigned work, and student activities. It explores the teachers pedagogical experimentation in their
teaching of mathematical problem solving after an analysis of their current practices. It concludes with a review of the effects such
changes have on students problem solving successes as reflected in pre- and post-problem-solving tests.
2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Mathematical problem solving; Teachers pedagogies; Video-coding; Classroom practices

1. Introduction

This study stems from the curriculum framework outlined in the Primary Mathematics Syllabus for all Singapore
schools (Ministry of Education, 2000). It places mathematical problem solving (MPS) as the central focus of the
curriculum (Fig. 1), where mathematical problem solving includes using and applying mathematics in practical tasks,
in real life problems and within mathematics itself (MOE, 2000, p. 5). This entails a wide range of problem types
from routine mathematical problems to problems in unfamiliar contexts and open-ended investigations that make
use of the relevant mathematics and thinking processes. There is purportedly less emphasis on the tell-show-do
paradigm, and more emphasis on instructional practices that encourage problem solving, practical and investigative
work, and communicative aspects of mathematics learning. Central to this focus is the teacher. As Howson, Keitel,
and Kirkpatrick (1981) have pointed out one cannot truly talk, then, of a national curriculum, for it depends upon
individual teachers, their methods and understanding, and their interpretation of aims, guidelines, texts, etc. The part
played by the individual teacher must, therefore, be recognized (p. 2).
The mathematics curriculum may be viewed from three different perspectives, i.e., the intended curriculum, the
implemented curriculum, and the attained curriculum (Howson & Malone, 1984; Robitaille & Dirks, 1982). Thus,
while it is intended that problem solving should be the central focus of the curriculum, the role of the teacher is

This paper is drawn from a funded project CRP01/04 TSK, Developing the Repertoire of Heuristics for Mathematical Problem Solving, Centre
for Research in Pedagogy and Practice, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Corresponding author. Tel.: +65 6790 3370; fax: +65 6316 4787.

E-mail address: (K.F. Ho).

0732-3123/$ see front matter 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252 239

Fig. 1. Framework of the Singapore Mathematics Program.

pertinent to its effective implementation and the question remains: to what extent is MPS emphasized in the classroom,
and with what degree of success?

1.1. Teachers the implementers

In a 2-year study in two Singapore schools to investigate pedagogical practices in the elementary mathematics
classroom, Chang, Kaur, Koay, and Lee (2001) found that traditional teaching approaches predominated amongst
the teachers. The typical teaching approach was expository, followed by students practicing routine exercises to
consolidate the concepts, knowledge and skills. Chang et al.s study involved video taping five 1-h mathematics
lessons for four teachers, two from an elite school and two from a local school. In another study, Foong, Yap, and Koay
(1996) described how a number of teachers expressed their concern over their perceived lack of skills for the teaching
of mathematics using a problem solving approach. They found that teachers felt inadequately prepared to teach
MPS when the examples were nonroutine problems that had several possible solutions. They doubted their ability
to communicate the multiple concepts required by students to understand without being confused by the number of
methods and heuristics suggested in the newly released syllabus, and the teachers expressed unease with the emphasis
on open-ended problem solving. Such lack of confidence led to the general belief that there was an over reliance on
textbooks and a narrow range of problem types used in classroom examples, both contrary to the official syllabus (MOE,
Teachers development in giving problem solving instructions has been insufficiently explored by researchers
(Chapman, 1999; Lester, 1994). In one study, Norton, McRobbie, and Cooper (2002) investigated how nine teachers
responded to a reform curriculum (Board of Senior Secondary School Studies, 1992) in line with reforms initiated by
the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM, 1989, 2000) and the Australian Education Council (AEC,
1990). They sought to find if teachers who were using an investigative approach that involved students actively engaging
in: making sense of new information and ideas (Curriculum Council, 1998, p. 1), investigating mathematical
processes situated within meaningful contexts (Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers Inc., 1996, p. 4), and
construction of meaning (Anderson, 1994, p. 1). The teachers varied their pedagogical approaches differentially for
students with different abilities, notwithstanding the stated goals of conceptual understanding for more able students
and predominately calculational goals for less able students. Three teachers still favored the show and tell approach
for both groups of students, while another three employed a mix of explain and show and tell approaches. Of
the remaining three, two used the investigative approach for the more able students and show and tell for the less
able. Only one teacher out of the nine used an investigative approach as intended in the curriculum for both groups
of students. The researchers observed that while the teachers expressed support for the investigative approach and the
objective of teaching for conceptual understanding, other factors (particularly preparation for high-stake examinations)
appeared to influence the goals and approaches adopted in classrooms.
240 K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252

Teachers understanding of problem solving, their interpretations of how to teach it and how much time to spend
on it vary (Grouws, 1996). Possible conceptions of teaching problem solving include: teaching about, teaching for,
and teaching via problem solving (Schroeder & Lester, 1989); problematizing mathematics as a way to think about
problem solving (Hiebert et al., 1996). The teachers role in implementing a curriculum that emphasizes problem
solving involves more than just expressions of support on the part of the teachers (Senger, 1999). Possible supportive
ingredients in the process might include interventions that explore what approaches teachers could adopt, other suitable
lesson formats or problem tasks.
In studies of approaches to teaching problem solving, teachers were often assigned particular approaches by
researchers who then proceeded to investigate the implementation and subsequent effects each approach has on stu-
dents learning. In Sigurdson, Olson, and Masons (1994) study, the effects of classroom teaching that incorporated
a problem-solving dimension on student learning of mathematics were investigated. Three approaches were imple-
mented: algorithmic practice, teaching with meaning, and a problem-solving approach. The problem-solving approach
involved teaching with meaning (Sigurdson & Olson, 1992) plus a daily insertion of 10 min of problem-process work.
The three approaches were assigned to the 41 teachers in the study. Preparation of teachers involved 10 h of work-
shops for the algorithmic practice approach and 25 h of workshops for the other two approaches, all spread over the
implementation period of 5 months. The outcomes of their study were somewhat complex, with the analysis done
along the three approaches and the students in each approach divided into low-, medium-, and high-achievers. They
claimed, among other things, that the meaning and problem-process approaches in teaching were important, result-
ing in more students learning with improved achievement and positive attitudes. They also noted that the higher
achieving students benefited more. However, in another study about two classes, one high-ability and the other low,
Holton, Anderson, Thomas, and Fletcher (1999) found that lower ability students seemed to benefit more from the
introduction of problem solving lessons. While such research on problem solving has significant implications, the
extent and the way in which problem solving is implemented in the classroom remains largely unexplored. Empirical
data about the way that teachers taught before their involvement in the project, observations of pedagogical practices
within in the classrooms during implementation, and the salient features of different approaches that impacted students
was not collected. These aspects are important to a better understanding of the process of curriculum implementa-
The current study aims to address these issues. In particular, this study posits links between describing what is
happening in the classrooms and subsequent changes in teachers classroom practices without imposing or assigning
any particular approach for teachers to adopt and follow. We also address the following issue: how students learning
of problem solving skills is impacted by the changes in the teachers classroom practices.

1.2. Students the attainers

Foong and Koay (1997) found interesting consequences of teachers lack of preparation in using the new approaches
recommended in a revised syllabus. Using eight pairs of items, each pair consisting of a standard word problem typically
found in textbooks and a realistic word problem where the student needed to consider the realities of the context of the
problem statements, the researchers found that students tended to disregard the actual situation described in word
problems and instead, go straight into exploring the possible combinations of numbers to infer directly the needed
mathematical operations (p. 73). Earlier, Koay and Foong (1996) many of the nearly 300 lower secondary students
that they examined failed to make connections between school mathematics and everyday life. These studies suggest
the teaching of MPS did not apply mathematics in practical tasks and real world problems, as mandated in the intended
curriculum. Students attainments are falling short of the intentions.
Cais (2003) exploratory study suggests that most students were able to select appropriate solution strategies to
solve the tasks, and chose appropriate solution representations to clearly communicate their solution processes
(p. 733). He explored fourth, fifth and sixth grade students MPS skills, using four tasks which were mathematically
rich, and were embedded in different content areas and contexts, and allowed Singaporean students thinking from
various perspectives. Further, Singaporean students repeated top ranking performance in mathematics on the Trends
in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS-2003) (Mullis, Martin, Gonzalez, & Chrostowski, 2004)
suggests that the current syllabus (MOE, 2000) is working well.
Such seemingly contrasting findings about students attainment warrant a need for a closer look at teachers class-
room practices and their possible impact on students learning.
K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252 241

2. Method

This study began by identifying the elements MPS pedagogical practice that exists in typical elementary mathe-
matics classrooms. In particular, it addressed the main research question: What teachers classroom practices support
mathematical problem solving development in their students?
Following the collection of a systematic, evidence base describing current mathematics instruction practices, an
intervention was designed to raise the teachers awareness of MPS ideas and processes and to support an increased
emphasis on the centrality of problem solving in the Singapore Mathematics Program. The intervention had three
components and followed a design research approach: First, teachers were interviewed to review salient features of their
classroom practices and prompted to give their own descriptions and interpretations of events. Second, we conducted
a workshop which discussed Polyas (1957) four phases of problem solving understanding, planning, executing,
and looking back. Third, after the workshop and some lapse of time, informal post-lesson interviews were conducted
when we returned to observe the teachers again. These were short discussions immediately after observations. The
purpose was to talk about the lesson, its degree of success (in terms of problem solving instruction) and the teachers
own assessment of the outcomes. The intervention lead to a second research question: Given a reflective intervention
emphasizing MPS instructional emphasis, do teachers change teaching strategies and does it result in increased students
problem solving successes?
From the analysis of the initial observations, we saw that the teachers, when introducing problems, tended to read the
problems quickly and proceed to immediately execute the solutions, with little or no strategic planning. They also did
not reflect on the solution or its success. As the goal was to explore the explicit development of students metacognitive
aspects of problem solving, when conducting the workshop, the importance of explaining during the reading of the
problem and the possibility of being more explicit about planning and reflecting were highlighted. The need to employ
more rich and authentic problem tasks was also highlighted. Several examples were shown and their solutions were
worked through thoroughly following Polyas four phases.
While it is not possible to trace the individual trajectory of each and every students learning, an adaptation of
the Cobb, Stephan, McClain, and Gravemeijer (2001) approach was used to document the collective mathematical
development of a classroom community over the extended periods of time covered by instructional sequences. Cobb
et al. resolved the issue about the trajectory of . . . students learning and the significant qualitative differences
in their mathematical thinking at any point in time, by proposing a hypothetical learning trajectory as consisting
of conjectures about the collective mathematical development of the classroom community (p. 117). Likewise in
this study, it is difficult to ascertain the casual relations or direct impact between the intervention, possible teacher
change and students learning outcomes. Hence instructional impact on students was viewed in terms of a collective
mathematical development through their responses in a pre- and post-set of problem solving tasks.

2.1. Data sources

The chief source of data was from classroom observations which were recorded on video and audio, and then
transcribed. In addition, short discussions with teachers immediately after an observation contingent upon teachers
availability and the researchers field notes were secondary sources. For the question of whether there had been an
increase in students problem solving successes, a quantitative approach was used. Repeated paired-sample t tests of
students responses in the pre- and post-tests are used to test for significant performance differences.
The period of video recording spanned over 5 weeks for the pre-invention stage. The pre-test was administered to the
students at the end of this stage. The reflective practice intervention, teachers workshop, interviews and discussions,
occurred over the next month. Several weeks later, the researchers returned to video record some lessons in the post-
intervention stage. Typically this spanned 3 weeks, at the end of which the post-test was administered to the students.
The total time for the study spanned approximately 4 months.

2.2. The sample

The focus is on three teachers from three different schools who were involved in a larger study. Their involvement
came about on an opportunistic basis through a meeting with the schools superintendent. The classes they taught were
deemed academically weak for the Grade 5 level at their respective schools. Teacher A was from an upper band school
242 K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252

(i.e., above national average in academic terms). She has been teaching for 10 years mainly at the lower primary levels.
At the time of the study, it was her first time teaching Grade 5 mathematics in a class of 37 students. Teacher B was
from a middle band school. He has been teaching for 3 years at the Grade 5 level. He worked previously in the financial
industry for about 10 years before obtaining a teaching diploma. His class had 36 students. Teacher C was from a lower
band school and has been teaching for 10 years. She had 33 students in her class some of them had opted to be in
her class even though they only qualified for a lower stream. All three teachers are form teachers for their classes and
also teach English and Science to their class. The analysis began with these teachers mainly because the researchers
wanted to know the impact of the intervention on the weaker students first.

2.3. The coding scheme

A coding scheme was developed using the Grounded Theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) where ideas of
pedagogical phases emerged as the video recordings were reviewed. After several iterations, a coding scheme that
divided each lesson into five phases was developed. These phases include problem solving, teaching of concepts and
skills, going over assigned work, student activities, and other classroom events.
The problem solving category refers to a phase where time is spent solving a problem. This usually happens when
the teacher presents a problem as part of a problem-solving episode. This can be teacher-led, teacher-student-question-
and-answer, or student-led. This phase was further analyzed using Polya (1957)s four stages of problem solving,
namely Understanding, Planning, Executing, and Reecting. (This strategy was chosen as it seemed easiest for the
teachers to begin their exploration compared to more recent adaptations, e.g., Schoenfeld, 1985.)
The teaching of skills and concepts phase relates directly with the MPS curriculum framework (see Fig. 1). Teaching
of skills occurs when the teacher uses class time to teach skills such as arithmetic or algebraic manipulation, estima-
tion/approximation, mental calculation, communication, use of mathematical tools, handling data, etc. For example,
the teacher might recall some common mistakes the class made in assigned work, and proceed to show and explain the
correct steps. This teaching of skills is distinguished from the problem solving Execution phase where skills are used
to solve a problem after some preceding Understanding/Planning has taken place. For the teaching of concepts, class
time is spent showing, demonstrating, defining, and explaining the numerical, geometrical, algebraic, or statistical
The going over assigned work phase occurs when the teacher uses class time to go over work that has been assigned
previously. Students would have had spent some time on the assigned work. Common examples include given exercises
or worksheets, tasks/homework, test paper/assessment, etc. Three types are distinguished: reworking, procedural and
quick check. Reworking happens when the teacher goes over the assigned work thoroughly, i.e., understanding the
problem, planning, executing and reflecting the problem. It has a corrective or a remedial tone which is different
from the problem solving instruction in the problem solving phase. The instruction also tends to be algorithmic
versus the more heuristic type of instruction in the problem-solving phase. In the procedural type, the teacher goes
over the assigned work to focus on the correctness of the procedures needed to solve the problem. The intention is very
often for students to know the steps to solve the problem. The third type refers to the teacher going over the answers
quickly for students to check against their own answers.
The student activities phase refers to spending class time with students doing assigned tasks. There were three
common types of student activities, presentation, group work, and seat work. Student(s) present their solutions of
assigned problems to their classmates/teacher either using the white board or overhead projector, or by standing up
to present orally. Group work occurs when groups of students are given tasks to do. Seat work refers to students
completing assigned tasks individually. If a few students are called up to show their answers on board while the rest are
continuing with their seat work, then it is considered seat work but if the teacher stops the students working and tells
the class to pay attention to what their classmates are writing/doing in front, then it is students presentation. When the
teacher goes over the students work on the board, then a change of phase to going over assigned work is deemed to
have occurred.
The last phase of other classroom events is a catch-all category. Generally there are two types: those that are
related to the on-going lesson, for example, rearranging the seating arrangement as part of the transition to group work,
and those unrelated to the lesson such as the teacher making a general announcement. The inclusion for this phase is
for a more accurate accounting of class time.
Thus, the video-coding scheme comprises five main phases and a total of 14 sub-categories in the five phases.
K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252 243

Table 1
Total number of lessons, time and the average time per lesson in the pre-intervention stage
Teacher Band of school Number of lessons Total time observed Average time per lesson
(to the nearest min) (nearest min)

A Upper 9 7:38:00 51
B Middle 8 6:49:00 51
C Low 6 5:41:00 57
Overall 23 20:08:00 53

2.4. Student assessment tasks

Two other aspects were important to the development of the evidence base: the type of mathematical word problems
used as teaching examples and the range of heuristics that could be used to solve each problem. When identifying
problem types, it was noted that the teachers generally used standard word problems typically found in textbooks (Foong
& Koay, 1997). Other word problem types were deemed non-standard, and were not typically found in textbooks. The
range of heuristics to be coded in the scheme was taken directly from the syllabus (MOE, 2000, p. 6). Examples include
act it out, use a diagram or a model, guess and check, make a systematic list, and so on Table 1 shows the
complete list.
This study used ten problems for the pre-test. Half of these problems were standard word problems while the other
half were non-standard. In the post-test, the problems were similar, except the tasks were amended slightly in terms
of wording and numbers. To illustrate, the following standard problem In 2003, Dan was 16 and his mother was
44. In which year was Dans mother eight times as old as Dan? was recast as Mary received 14 vitamin pills and
John 29 vitamin pills on 2nd August. They both take only one pill daily from that day. What is the date when John has
four times more pills than Mary? in the post-test. For the following non-standard problem in the pre-test There
are 100 buns to be shared by 100 monks. The senior monks get three buns each and three junior monks share one bun.
How many senior monks are there?, the post-tests equivalent problem appeared as The zoo keeper gave 80 bananas
to 50 monkeys. The big monkeys got two bananas each, and three small monkeys shared 2 bananas. How many big
monkeys are there? For these two pairs of problems as well as the others, the processes required to solve each of them
in both the pre- and post-tests were kept as similar as possible.

3. Results and discussion

The most commonly adopted approach by the teachers focused on the textbook/workbook. The teachers followed
a scheme of work endorsed by the respective schools departmental heads: the teacher introduced the topic, explained
the concepts, and gave students time to practice the related skills. Word problems were conceived as separate events
and only introduced near the end of the topic. The topics observed were whole numbers and fractions.
In the pre-intervention phase, 23 lessons of the three teachers were recorded and coded. Each lesson averaged about
53 min. The following Table 1 summarizes the time of observations.

3.1. Intercoder agreement

To analyze the classroom observations, the researchers used the coding scheme as the main analytical tool. The
issue of intercoder reliability or more specifically intercoder agreement for such an analysis is fundamental (Bakeman
& Gottman, 1997; Neuendorf, 2002). Out of the 23 lessons, six were coded by two different coders from a pool of
five including one of the researchers. The coders were trained over a period of at least 3 weeks. Percentage agreement,
defined as the proportion of the number of agreements to the number of agreements and disagreements, is used to
calculate intercoder agreement. To account for agreement expected by chance, the Cohens (Cohen, 1960) is also
calculated. Three variables were examined: the agreement for the five main phases, the overall agreement for all 14
sub-categories, and the agreement within the problem solving phase. For the five main phases, the agreement was
97% and the , 0.96. The agreement across the 14 sub-categories was 87% and the , 0.85. The agreement within
the problem solving phase is 78% and the , 0.72. On the whole, the coders were able to identify reliably the five
244 K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252

Table 2
Amount of time each teacher spent on each phase
Teacher Problem solving (as Teaching concepts Going over assigned Student activities Others (as Total time
percent of total) and skills (as work (as percent of (as percent of total) percent of observed
percent of total) total) total)

A 03:04:15 (40%) 00:37:35 (8%) 0:53:20 (12%) 2:45:20 (36%) 0:17:25 (4%) 7:38:00 (100%)
B 00:30:15 (7%) 01:02:50 (15%) 1:14:10 (18%) 2:57:40 (44%) 1:04:25 (16%) 6:49:00 (100%)
C 00:07:05 (2%) 00:29:45 (9%) 1:45:00 (31%) 2:55:40 (52%) 0:23:10 (7%) 5:41:00 (100%)

main phases and the 14 sub-categories. For the four sub-categories within the problem solving phase, the of 0.72
is deemed acceptable by some researchers like Lombard, Snyder-Duch, and Bracken (2002) for exploratory studies,
while Fleiss (1981) would characterize it as good. Notwithstanding, this borderline reliability when seen within
the overall frame of the study allows for some conditional analysis for looking into the teaching of problem solving in

3.2. The results

It was clear that all three teachers shared some common ways of teaching but differed in the amount of time spent
on the various phases (Table 2).
To illustrate the proportion of time as a percentage of the overall, each column of the graph is stacked as one unit,
i.e., 100% (Fig. 2).
Generally Teacher A spent proportionately more class time (40%) on problem solving than the other two teachers.
In the middle band school, B spent 7%. C spent the least at 2%. A and C used solely whole-class teaching. B spent
some of his instruction time doing problems using a group work configuration.

3.3. The problem solving phase

Each problem-solving phase was further deconstructed using Polyas (1957) four stages of Understanding, Planning,
Execution, and Reection. The following Fig. 3 shows the expansion on each of the teachers, bearing in mind each of
them spent 40, 7, and 2% of their overall observed class time on problem solving respectively.
Notably the teachers spent much of their time during the problem-solving phase on understanding the problem and
executing the steps required to solve the problem. Teacher A spent 17% of her problem solving time on planning while
C spent proportionately less time at 7%. Teacher B did no solution planning at all.

Fig. 2. Distribution of lesson time of the three Grade 5 teachers.

K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252 245

Fig. 3. Proportion of time teachers spent on each stage of problem solving.

3.4. Types of word problems used

Of the 78 questions used by the three teachers during the period of observation, 74 were the standard
word problem typically found in textbooks (Foong & Koay, 1997). A distinction was made between prob-
lems used directly for problem solving instruction and those problems that were assigned as homework or class
work, and later used by the teacher for problem solving instruction. The latter type of problems was classi-
fied as Going over assigned work Reworking. Table 3 shows the number of problems used by the teach-
Teachers B and C gave instruction on problem solving more through the mode of going over assigned work, which
had a more remediation tone than tackling a fresh problem. For A, her MPS instruction occurred through presenting
problems directly. She spent more time on problem solving than the other two teachers and she used more problems
and spent more time per problem.

3.5. Range of heuristics

The problem solving heuristic most commonly observed in the three classrooms was the Diagram/Model (used in
about 74% of the problems). Of the remaining heuristics listed in the syllabus, they were seen once or twice or not
at all (see Table 5). The Think of a related problem heuristic is not listed in the syllabus but Teacher A used it as a
heuristic for four problems.

3.6. Teaching of concepts and skills phase

The time spent in this phase ranged from 8 to 15%. As the topics covered during the period of observation were
mainly whole numbers and fractions, the concepts taught were numerical concepts. The teachers mainly covered
arithmetic manipulation, taught the skills involved in adding and multiplying fractions.

Table 3
Number of problems used in the observed lessons
Teacher Number of problems used Total number
of questions
Problem solving Going over assigned
work Reworking

A 37 6 43
B 5 13 18
C 1 16 17
246 K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252

Table 4
Distribution of time in the Going over assigned work phase
Reworking Procedural Quick Phase total As percent of overall total

A 00:45:10 (85%) 00:07:05 (13%) 00:01:05 (2%) 00:53:20 (100%) 12

B 00:32:39 (44%) 00:27:18 (37%) 00:14:15 (19%) 01:14:12 (100%) 18
C 01:05:55 (63%) 00:31:35 (30%) 00:07:30 (7%) 01:45:00 (100%) 31

3.7. Going over assigned work phase

Going over assigned work enables students to check their work against the teachers. As discussed in the section on
the coding scheme (see p. 5), the going over assigned work phase has three sub-categories: reworking, procedural and
quick check. Table 4 shows the time spent in this phase are distributed over the three categories.
The percentage of time teachers spent in this phase ranged from 12 to 31%, with Teacher C spending the most time.
According to discussions with C, she needed to go over assigned work many times to show her students how to do the
assigned work. All three teachers mainly reworked assigned problems though B and C spent relatively more time than
A going over the procedures of solving word problems and checking answers quickly.

3.8. Types of student activities

The various types of student activities observed were grouped in the following three categories: students presentation
mainly in the form of standing in front of the class and talking about their work; group work including pair work; and
individual seat work. Fig. 4 shows the distribution of the types of student activities in each class.
All teachers assigned individual seat work during class time. In As case it was the only form of student activity
coded. For group work, only B used the small group configuration in class. Bs students did presentation during our
observations. The common mode was students writing their solutions on board; and occasionally being asked to explain
their answers. This was typically followed by the teacher going over the written answers. Teacher Cs 1% of student
presentation amounted to less than 2 min, suggesting that it was not part of her regular practice.

3.9. Post-intervention observations

After a reflective practice intervention comprising interviews and a workshop (see p. 4), the teachers were observed
again about once a week over 34 weeks. These were lessons that teachers deemed typical and involved some problem
solving. The general approaches used by the teachers remained similar to the earlier observations, with teachers
continuing with their scheme of work as planned at the beginning of the year. In terms of proportion of time both

Fig. 4. Percentage of time spent on the three types of student activities.

K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252 247

Fig. 5. Comparing patterns in problem solving phases beforeafter intervention.

Teachers A and B did not change significantly their distribution of time over the five phases. However, C increased
her amount of time spent on the problem-solving phase significantly from 2.1% (or about 7 min of 5.75 h) to 7.5% (or
almost 11 min of 2.5 h). Other notable qualitative changes in the post-intervention observations are discussed in the
following sections.

3.9.1. Changes in patterns in the problem solving phase

Teacher A spent proportionately much more time on reflection than before. Notably there were explicit attempts to
look back for alternative ways of solving the same problems. B factored in some time for planning whereas before he
did not and he also spent relatively more time working through the execution. The notable change for both A and C
is their increase in the proportion of time for reflection. B spent less time on reflection. The changes are illustrated in
Fig. 5.

3.9.2. More non-standard word problems used

Before, about 95% word problems discussed in class were standard problems. After intervention, teachers use of
non-standard problems increased from 5 to about 45%.

3.9.3. Range of Heuristics used more evenly distributed

Although the Diagram/Model heuristic remained the most commonly used at approximately 50% of the time, more
of the other heuristics were observed after the intervention in the work of Teachers A and C, but not Teacher B (See
Table 5).
For Teachers A and C, there is generally a wider spread of heuristics after the intervention. Teachers A and C
used other heuristics more than before. Teacher B did not make any notable changes.

3.9.4. Other qualitative changes

In post-intervention observations, Teacher A made attempts to incorporate some pair and small group work in her
class, and her students were given opportunities to present and talk about their solutions. In her students presentation
of solutions there was increased evidence of the use of heuristics whereas before there was none.
Teacher B made several changes. His classroom was rearranged from cluster seating (more suitable for group work)
to columns and rows (more suited to whole class teaching). He used only whole class teaching followed by individual
seat work in the after stage. He stopped doing group work. According to him, he had thought his students were not
benefiting from group work and reverted back to whole class teaching for more effective learning. His students had
not done well in the schools continual assessment. He also constrained his ventures into non-standard problems by
focusing more on textbook based problems.
Teacher C made her first foray into group work for her class after the intervention. She also experimented with non-
standard problems. Her students were not familiar with working in groups. After the initial difficulties, they managed
some degree of success after a few weeks. C now spent more time teaching problem solving. As before, Cs students
did not get to present their solutions in front of the class. Instead she provided more scaffolding to facilitate learning
in groups of students.
248 K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252

Table 5
Range of heuristics teachers used in class before and after intervention
Range of heuristics observed Teachers (before and after intervention)
(before and after intervention)
A B C Total

Before After Before After Before After Before After

1. Act it out 2 2
2. Diagram/model 30 12 3 1 7 3 40 16
3. Guess and check 1 2 1 1 1 2 4
4. Systematic listing 3 1 4 1 7
5. Look for patterns 2 2
6. Work backwards 1 1 1 1 2
7. Beforeafter concept 1 1 1 1
8. Make suppositions
9. Restate problem 1 1
10. Simplify problem 1 1 2
11. Solve part problem 1 1
12. Think of related problems 4 1 4 1
Total 38 18 8 5 8 11 54 34

3.10. Students pre- and post-tests

The number of students who took the pre- and post-test is summarized in Table 6.
The sets of tasks were scored into three categories: correct, attempted (but incorrect or incomplete) and blank. The
overall scores for the three classes are summarized in Table 7.
Fig. 6 illustrates the changes in the students performances from pre-test to post-test.
The number of correct answers went up about 5.6% while the number of blank responses went down about 3%.
There was also a slight drop of 2.5% in the Attempted category, i.e., there were fewer incomplete or wrong answers.

3.11. Details of results in individual classes

There was a notable increase in the number of correct answers in Teacher As class from 73 to 98 even with one
absentee who did not take the post-test. The number of blank responses also went down significantly (Table 8).
Table 9 includes the t test results for Teacher As class. The mean correct answers increased by 0.72, or by about
36%. The t value of 3.224 and P at .003 indicates a significant increase with a moderate effect size of 0.54.
The changes in Teacher Bs students were moderate an increase in the number correct from 59 to 69, and a
decrease in the number of blank responses from 138 to 93 (Table 8). The mean for Teacher Bs class increased by 0.44
or about 28% but was not statistically significant.
Table 6
The number of students in each class and the number who took the tests
A B C Total

Number of students 37 36 33 106

Pre-test 37 36 33 106
Post-test 36 34 31 101

Table 7
Overall results
Correct Attempted Blank Total (number)

Number Mean SD Number Mean SD Number Mean SD

Pre-test 167 1.58 1.14 558 5.26 2.24 335 3.16 2.26 1060
Post-test 216 2.14 1.29 506 5.01 2.20 288 2.85 2.01 1010
K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252 249

Fig. 6. Overall pre-test and post-test results.

For Teacher Cs students the number of correct answers increased from 35 to 49. It was the only class that had an
increase in blank responses, but as the post-test was administered 15 min late, the students had less time to complete it.
The mean increased 0.52, or about 48% which was statistically significant. This occurred despite the circumstances in
the post-test administration mentioned above. Further, these students were from a lower band school, and the weakest
class of the grade level. The effect size of 0.42 was moderate.
In summary, students in A and Cs classes showed statistically significant increase in the number of correct answers
in their post-tests. Overall, there was a significant increase in the number of correct answers. There were less incom-
plete/wrong answers and blanks an indication that the students did better and were more willing to try to solve the
problems than before.

Table 8
Individual teachers class results
Correct Attempted Blank Total (number)

Number Mean SD Number Mean SD Number Mean SD

As class
Pre-test 73 1.97 1.07 176 4.76 2.31 121 3.27 2.10 370
Post-test 98 2.72 1.32 165 4.58 2.36 97 2.69 1.95 360
Bs class
Pre-test 59 1.64 1.33 163 4.53 1.63 138 3.83 2.37 360
Post-test 69 2.03 1.31 178 5.24 1.71 93 2.74 1.88 340
Cs class
Pre-test 35 1.06 0.75 219 6.64 2.15 76 2.30 2.10 330
Post-test 49 1.58 0.92 163 5.26 2.46 98 3.16 2.24 310

Table 9
Class paired-samples t test for the number of correct answers
Mean SD t value df P d

Teacher A (n = 36)
Pre-test 2.00 1.07 3.224 35 0.003 0.54
Post-test 2.72 1.32
Teacher B (n = 34)
Pre-test 1.59 1.31 1.69 33 0.100 0.29
Post-test 2.03 1.31
Teacher C (n = 31)
Pre-test 1.06 0.73 2.327 30 0.027 0.42
Post-test 1.58 0.92
250 K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252

4. Conclusion

This study has gone some way in recording and analyzing particular interactions of three teachers classroom
practices in the teaching and learning of mathematics with a particular focus on problem solving. The video-coding
scheme enabled the identification of five phases: problem solving, the teaching of concepts/skills, going over assigned
work, student activities and other class events. The amount of time each teacher spent on each of the phases describes
typical classroom practice. However, traditional patterns of teaching a topic, explaining concepts and giving students
exercises to practice related skills prevailed. Similar patterns were observed both before and after the reflective practice
intervention. Such patterns match what Schroeder and Lester (1989) describe as teaching for problem solving. To some
extent we observed a narrow interpretation of this approach with teachers doing problem solving with students only
after the introduction of concepts or following work on computational or procedural skills.
According to Schroeder and Lester (1989, p. 34), teaching via problem solving brings out best the curricula focus on
problem solving. Ideally, the intervention should be to shift the teachers approach towards it. But such a major reform
change would require something more involved and complex (Senger, 1999). Given the short time the current study
spanned, it was more realistic to take the first steps to get teachers teach about problem solving highlighting Polyas
(1957) model of problem solving, with the longer term goal of moving towards teaching mathematics via problem
The results suggest that the teachers had at least started to question their own views about problem solving and how it
can be emphasized in their mathematics teaching. We noted that Teachers A and C loosen some of their predominating
teacher-centered approach to include some pair and small group work, resulting in greater student interaction and more
active participation. There was also a better spread of time through the four (Polya) phases of problem solving after
the intervention, breaking the understandexecute pattern to include more time on planning and reection. Notably, B
was more explicit about planning while Teachers A and C spent more time on reection.
One unexpected change was Teacher B stopped using group work in his class and reverted back to whole class
teaching. His concerns were that his class continuous assessment was slipping and they were not benefiting from the
group work he had done before. Bs concerns reflected the belief many teachers have that it was far more important
to prepare students for formal assessment than to implement problem solving lessons (Norton et al., 2002).
The range of heuristics introduced to students and their ability to try more than a limited range of heuristics to solve
mathematical problems has been shown to be possible and the implementations vary greatly between classrooms and
produce different effects. There are lessons for both the development of mathematical thinking in real classrooms as
well as those who seek to change pedagogical practice. The analysis has shown great individual variation in the way
teachers implement a simple problem solving strategy.
The range of heuristics employed and the type of problem were also important aspects of changing MPS classroom
practice. All teachers used more non-standard problems in class after the intervention as they realized that they were
providing a limited experience for their students. This change seems to be compatible with the findings of Cai (2003)
about the kinds of problem solving tasks that should be used. For this effect, the degree of support for teachers in
terms of resources and examples is critical. In fairness to the teachers, the testing and assessment systems and the
fact that one heuristic strategy (diagram/model) can be used by students to achieve solutions for at least 75% of
their assessment works actively against increasing other heuristic use. Teachers A and C did widened their range of
heuristics, employing other heuristics like guess and check, look for patterns, and systematic listing. Resources
such as suitable non-standard problems did help support teachers extend the range of heuristics in the teaching and
learning of MPS. To that end providing a set of problems that can be solved by more than one heuristic strategy is an
important starting point for teachers to consider changing their basic approach.
The overall results seem to suggest that the intervention strategy was effective, although the benefits of the interven-
tion were small. The Teachers A and C made qualitative changes to their teaching. Their students also demonstrated
moderate but statistically significant improvements in students learning. We suggest that the changes to Teacher A
and Cs teaching styles may have accounted for this improvement. Other possible factors that might have accounted
for the improvement include students natural mathematical development over the 4-month span of study or simply
familiarity with the post-test items after having seen the pre-test. These factors are acknowledged here and we can-
not claim students improvement was solely due to the qualitative changes in the teachers practices. Nonetheless, the
intervention appears to provide a first-step in developing instruction to help students better engage in authentic problem
K.F. Ho, J.G. Hedberg / Journal of Mathematical Behavior 24 (2005) 238252 251

In addition, better student performances in Teachers A and C classes may have something to do with the fact that
they spent more time on reection in their problem solving for both the teachers and the students. This lends support
to the few studies on the important role reflection plays in problem solving (cf. Cifarelli, 1998; Simon, Tzur, Heinz, &
Kinzel, 2004). To some extent the results of the current study demonstrated in actual classrooms the effectiveness of
an intervention that is designed to promote increased reflection in the students. There are important implications for
classroom application that need to be explicated through further analysis and research.
Clearly, observations of classroom practices can be viewed through many lenses (e.g., Bourke, 1985; Cobb et
al., 2001; Spillane & Zeuli, 1999; Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). Perhaps one important area is to look at classroom
tasks and discourse patterns in the Singapore mathematics classroom context. Would the patterns so identified be
comparable with the three patterns identified by Spillane and Zueli (1999), namely, Conceptually grounded tasks and
conceptually centered discourse, Conceptually oriented tasks and procedure-bounded discourse, and Peripheral
changes, continuity at the substantive core? This avenue would enrich further insights into classroom practices.
Another area could be studying the observations for a teaching script (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999) culturally specific to
Singapore. Given that the present sample size is small, it remains to be seen if by extending the investigation such a
script can indeed be differentiated.
Finally, the focus of the larger study is to systematically enlarge the evidence base and specifically work with the
changed explicit class discussion on metacognitive strategies that will assist students in planning and reviewing their
approaches. Most students had not been explicitly pushed to discuss their problem solving solutions in terms other than
procedural steps. Working with the teachers in this study covered a realistic period with authentic school assessment
tasks and has resulted in distinct behavioral changes in the students approaches. From cries of this is too difficult
to greater attempts and less blank responses we have seen changed attitudes to the process of solving mathematical
problems. Our results suggest that with an emphasis on metacognitive strategies and working with an explicit planning
approach, students can change their approach and experience greater success.


We acknowledge the invaluable contributions of the late Teong Su Kwang to the conceptualization of the project,
Mrs. Chang Swee Tong for her support, the teachers who so willingly gave their time and cooperation, and to Luis
Lioe and John Tiong for assisting in the data collection.


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