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Teaching Problem

Solving
(Polya’s four phase of solving
problems)
Problem-solving
is a process—an ongoing activity in
which we take what we know to discover
what we don't know. It involves
overcoming obstacles by generating
hypo-theses, testing those predictions,
and arriving at satisfactory solutions.
Word Problem

So, to start, let's think about a party. Sally was


having a party. She invited 20 women and 15
men. She made 1 dozen blue cupcakes and 3
dozen red cupcakes. At the end of the party
there were only 5 cupcakes left. How many
cupcakes were eaten?
Understanding the problem
The first step of Polya's Process is to Understand the Problem. Some ways
to tell if you really understand what is being asked is to:

• State the problem in your own words.

• Pinpoint exactly what is being asked.

• Identify the unknowns.

• Figure out what the problem tells you is important.

• Identify any information that is irrelevant to the problem.

In our example, we can understand the problem by realizing that we don't


need the information about the gender of the guests or the color of the
cupcakes - that is irrelevant. All we really need to know is that we are being
asked, 'How many cupcakes are left of the total that were made?' So, we
understand the problem.
Devising a Plan
Now that we understand the problem, we have to Devise a Plan to solve the problem.
We could:

• Look for a pattern.

• Review similar problems.

• Make a table, diagram or chart.

• Write an equation.

• Use guessing and checking.

• Work backwards.

• Identify a sub-goal.

In our example, we need a sub-goal of figuring out the actual total number of cupcakes
made before we can determine how many were left over.

We could write an equation to show what is unknown and how to find the solution:
(1 dozen + 3 dozen) - 5 = number eaten
Carry out the Plan
The third step in the process is the next logical step: Carry Out the
Plan. When you carry out the plan, you should keep a record of your
steps as you implement your strategy from step 2.

Our plan involved the sub-goal of finding out how many cupcakes were
made total. After that, we needed to know how many were eaten if
only 5 remained after the party. To find out, we wrote an equation
that would resolve the sub-goal while working toward the main goal.

So, (1 dozen + 3 dozen) - 5 = number eaten. Obviously, we would need


the prior knowledge that 1 dozen equals 12.

1 x 12 = 12, and 3 x 12 = 36, so what we really have is (12 + 36) - 5 =


number eaten.

12 + 36 = 48 and 48 - 5 = 43

That means that the number of cupcakes eaten is 43.


Looking Back
The final step in the process is very important, but many students skip it, feeling
like they have an answer so they can move on now. The final step is to Look
Back, which really means to check your work.

• Does the answer make sense?


Sometimes you can add wrong or multiply when you should have divided, then
your answer comes out clearly wrong if you just stop and think about it. In our
problem, we wanted to know how many cupcakes were eaten out of a total of
48. We got the answer 43. 43 is less than 48, so this answer does make sense.
(It would not have made sense if we got an answer greater than 48 - how could
they eat more than were made?)

• Check your result.


Checking your result could mean solving the problem in another way to make
sure you come out with the same answer. Basically, in mathematical terms, we
are saying that 48 - 5 = 43. If we were to draw out a diagram of the 1 dozen
blue cupcakes and 3 dozen red ones, then separate out the 5 that did not get
eaten, we would see that we do, indeed, have 43 represented as the eaten
cupcakes. Our answer checks out!