Building fluency through problem solving

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Problem solving builds fluency and fluency builds problem solving. How can you help learners make the most of this virtuous cycle and achieve mastery?

Fluency. It’s so important that I have written not one, not two, but three blog posts on the subject. It’s also one of the three key aims for the national curriculum.

It’s a common dilemma. Learners need opportunities to apply their knowledge in solving problems and reasoning (the other two NC aims), but can’t reason or solve problems until they’ve achieved a certain level of fluency.

Instead of seeing this as a catch-22, think of fluency and problem solving as a virtuous cycle — working together to help learners achieve true mastery.

Supporting fluency when solving problems

Fluency helps children spot patterns, make conjectures, test them out, create generalisations, and make connections between different areas of their learning — the true skills of working mathematically. When learners can work mathematically, they’re better equipped to solve problems.

But what if learners are not totally fluent? Can they still solve problems? With the right support, problem solving helps learners develop their fluency, which makes them better at problem solving, which develops fluency…

Here are ways you can support your learners’ fluency journey.

Don’t worry about rapid recall

What does it mean to be fluent? Fluency means that learners are able to recall and use facts in a way that is accurate, efficient, reliable, flexible and fluid. But that doesn’t mean that good mathematicians need to have super-speedy recall of facts either.

Putting pressure on learners to recall facts in timed tests can negatively affect their ability to solve problems. Research shows that for about one-third of students, the onset of timed testing is the beginning of maths anxiety. Not only is maths anxiety upsetting for learners, it robs them of working memory and makes maths even harder.

Just because it takes a learner a little longer to recall or work out a fact, doesn’t mean the way they’re working isn’t becoming accurate, efficient, reliable, flexible and fluid. Fluent doesn’t always mean fast, and every time a learner gets to the answer (even if it takes a while), they embed the learning a little more.

Give learners time to think and reason

Psychologist Daniel Willingham describes memory as “the residue of thought”. If you want your learners to become fluent, you need to give them opportunities to think and reason. You can do this by looking for ways to extend problems so that learners have more to think about.

Here’s an example: what is 6 × 7? You could ask your learners for the answer and move on, but why stop there? If learners know that 6 × 7 = 42, how many other related facts can they work out from this? Or if they don’t know 6 × 7, ask them to work it out using facts they do know, like (5 × 7) + (1 × 7), or (6 × 6) + (1 × 6)?

Spending time exploring problems helps learners to build fluency in number sense, recognise patterns and see connections, and visualise — the three key components of problem solving.

Developing problem solving when building fluency

Learners with strong problem-solving skills can move flexibly between different representations, recognising and showing the links between them. They identify the merits of different strategies, and choose from a range of different approaches to find the one most appropriate for the maths problem at hand.

So, what type of problems should you give learners when they are still building their fluency? The best problem-solving questions exist in a Goldilocks Zone; the problems are hard enough to make learners think, but not so hard that they fail to learn anything.

Here’s how to give them opportunities to develop problem solving.

Centre problems around familiar topics

Learners can develop their problem-solving skills if they’re actively taught them and are given opportunities to put them into practice. When our aim is to develop problem-solving skills, it’s important that the mathematical content isn’t too challenging.

Asking learners to activate their problem-solving skills while applying new learning makes the level of difficulty too high. Keep problems centred around familiar topics (this can even be content taught as long ago as two years previously).

Not only does choosing familiar topics help learners practice their problem-solving skills, revisiting topics will also improve their fluency.

Keep the focus on problem solving, not calculation

What do you want learners to notice when solving a problem? If the focus is developing problem-solving skills, then the takeaway should be the method used to answer the question.

If the numbers involved in a problem are ‘nasty’, learners might spend their limited working memory on calculating and lose sight of the problem. Chances are they’ll have issues recalling the way they solved the problem. On top of that, they’ll learn nothing about problem-solving strategies.

It’s important to make sure that learners have fluent recall of the facts needed to solve the problem. This way, they can focus on actually solving it rather than struggling to recall facts. To understand the underlying problem-solving strategies, learners need to have the processing capacity to spot patterns and make connections.

The ultimate goal of teaching mathematics is to create thinkers. Making the most of the fluency virtuous cycle helps learners to do so much more than just recall facts and memorise procedures. In time, your learners will be able to work fluently, make connections, solve problems, and become true mathematical thinkers.

Jo Boaler (2014). Research Suggests that Timed Tests Cause Math Anxiety. Teaching Children Mathematics, [online] 20(8), p.469. Available at:

Willingham, D. (2009). Why don’t students like school?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for Your Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

was one of the first Teaching for Mastery specialists trained by NCETM. She works as a maths consultant with schools new to the mastery approach, and is a contributor to the Blog.
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