The teaching of problemsolving through the development of a problemsolving model was investigated in a Grade 4 mathematics classroom. Learners completed a questionnaire regarding their knowledge of mathematical problemsolving, their attitudes towards problemsolving, as well as their experiences in solving problems. Learners’ responses revealed overall negative beliefs towards problemsolving as well as a lack of knowledge about what problemsolving in mathematics entails. The teacher then involved the learners in a structured learning programme where they worked in cooperative groups of six on different kinds of mathematical problems to solve. The groups regularly engaged in discussions about the different strategies they were using to solve a specific problem and eventually succeeded in formulating a generic problemsolving model they could call their own. The model was effectively used by the learners to solve various mathematical problems, reflecting their levels of cognitive development to a certain extent.
Introduction and orientation


Problemsolving has to be the primary goal of the teaching and learning of mathematics, giving each learner the opportunity to engage in problemsolving activities (NCTM, 2000). Learners not only learn mathematics while solving problems, but also develop problemsolving skills and strategies while doing mathematics (Lesh & Zawojewski, 2007; Schoenfeld, 1992, 2013).
The identification and solving of problems using critical and creative thinking, working in groups and recognising that problemsolving contexts do not exist in isolation are some of the general aims set for education and training in South Africa (Department of Basic Education, 2011). Moreover, problemsolving is also part of every content area in the South African Intermediate and Senior Phases Mathematics curricula.
South African Grade 8 learners performed poorly in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (Howie, 2004; Reddy, 2006). The TIMSS evaluated, among others, acquired mathematics knowledge as well as the use of logical thinking while solving problems (Heideman, 1999). Brenner, Herman, Ho and Zimmer (1999) attribute the outstanding performance of learners from Singapore, Korea and Japan to effective teaching and learning of problemsolving skills at school. South African mathematics learners’ poor results, in contrast, seemed to relate to learners’ inadequate mathematics knowledge and skills, especially problemsolving skills, and to poor mathematics teaching and learning (Howie, 2004; Reddy, 2006). This is a reflection of the situation not only in Grade 8 mathematics classrooms but also in Grade 4, where learners encounter problemsolving for the first time in a more formal (structured) way than before. Although issues related to problemsolving in mathematics have been widely researched at secondary school level, little is known about problemsolving strategies at Grade 4 level.
The aim of this article is to report on the process by which Grade 4 mathematics learners develop a problemsolving model while solving problems.
More specifically, the following research question was addressed: How can problemsolving be taught in a Grade 4 mathematics classroom?
Conceptual and theoretical framework


The research reported in this article was executed from a socialconstructivist perspective regarding the learning of mathematics. Learners construct their own mathematical knowledge by connecting mathematical facts, procedures and ideas (Hiebert & Grouws, 2007). Understanding or meaningful learning involves not only internal or mental representations of individual learners, but also social and cultural aspects. The development of mathematical concepts and mathematics learners’ problemsolving abilities is highly interdependent and socially constructed (Lesh & Zawojewski, 2007). Therefore, the teaching of mathematics through problemsolving provides opportunities for learners to gain understanding and attain higher levels of achievement (Rigelman, 2007).
Problemsolving refers to a mathematical situation that poses a mathematical question to which the solution is not immediately accessible to the solver, because they do not have a way to relate the data to a solution (Callejo & Vila, 2009). For the purpose of this article, mathematical problemsolving refers to a person's efforts to solve a problem that they have not encountered before. Through solving a given problem, a person should learn some mathematics.
Perspectives on problemsolving vary from a more traditional approach to a models and modelling approach. Traditionally, problemsolving involved the following steps: mastering the prerequisite mathematical ideas and skills, practising the newly mastered ideas and skills in solving word problems, learning general problemsolving processes and, finally, applying the learned ideas and skills to solve reallife problems. Lesh and Zawojewski (2007) view problemsolving as modelling: in response to a reallife problem situation, the problem solver will engage in mathematical thinking as they produce or develop a sensible solution for the problem. This suggests that people learn mathematics through problemsolving and that they learn problemsolving through doing mathematics. For Schoenfeld (2013), solving problems is part of the doing and sensemaking of mathematics. In doing mathematics, learners investigate, make conjectures and use problemsolving strategies to verify those conjectures.
Most current problemsolving models have adapted Polya's fourphase model of understanding the problem, devising a plan, carrying out the plan and looking back (Polya, 1973). Lester (1985) added metacognitive behaviour to Polya's model. Schoenfeld (1992) included managerial processes in the teaching of problemsolving, to be discussed with learners while they are solving problems. Fernandez, Hadaway and Wilson (1994) introduced a dynamic and cyclic interpretation of the model, including metacognitive processes (selfmonitoring, selfregulating and selfassessment). According to this model, a learner starts solving a problem by engaging in thought to understand a given problem, then moves into the planning stage. After some time spent on making a plan, the learner's selfmonitoring of understanding creates the need to understand the problem better and the learner returns to the understandingtheproblem stage.
In their research on the nature of problemsolving behaviour, Lester and Kehle (2003) come to the conclusion that the knowledge of good problemsolvers not only exceeds the knowledge of poor problemsolvers, but also is more connected. Good problemsolvers pay more attention to the structural features of problems, while poor problemsolvers’ attention is focused on surface features. Furthermore, good problemsolvers are better users of metacognition during problemsolving.
Schoenfeld (1992) refers to metacognition as the ability that enables problemsolvers to break down a problem into subproblems, solving the subproblems and eventually solving the original problem. Wilson and Clark (2004) report on students’ use of metacognitive language to describe how they go through a metacognitive cycle (awareness, evaluation, regulation, evaluation) during problemsolving activities.
Primary school mathematics learners are not mathematical problemsolvers by nature; therefore, they have to be taught problemsolving skills and strategies (McCormick, Miller & Pressley, 1989; Lesh & Zawojewski, 2007). This can be done by using problembased mathematics lessons (Van de Walle, Karp & BayWilliams, 2013). These lessons consist of three parts, namely a ‘before’ part when preknowledge is assessed and the problem is presented to the learners, the ‘during’ part when the learners attempt to solve the problem and the ‘after’ part when the learners discuss and reflect on their solutions.
Problemsolving can be successfully executed in small groups (McLeod, 1993). The interaction between the teacher and learners as well as among the learners working together in small groups can improve the quality of the teaching and learning of mathematics (Berry & Nyman, 2002). Rather than working on their own, learners in groups have more opportunities to participate in problemsolving activities, discover problemsolving strategies for themselves and report back to other groups than when working on their own (Cangelosi, 2003).
The understanding of the role of beliefs and dispositions in problemsolving has not changed much since Schoenfeld's work in 1992 (Callejo & Vila, 2009; Lesh & Zawojewski, 2007). Certain beliefs with respect to mathematical problemsolving sometimes have negative influences on learners’ mathematical thinking, such as: mathematics problems have only one correct answer; there is only one correct way to solve a mathematics problem; only a few learners understand mathematics – other learners are supposed to memorise and apply what they have learnt without understanding; learners who have understood the mathematics they learnt will be able to solve any problem in five minutes or less (Schoenfeld, 1992).
A supportive problemsolving environment can change learners’ dispositions towards problemsolving (Yudariah, Yusof & Tall, 1999) from negative to positive. Middleton, Lesh and Heger (2003) conducted problemsolving sessions among learners where they had to solve mathematical problems in small groups. During the sessions learners not only shared their mathematical thinking processes while collaborating in groups, but also revealed their beliefs and dispositions with respect to the mathematics dealt with in a specific problem.
Although there is a strong relationship between learners’ approaches to problemsolving and their belief systems, it is difficult to determine a causal relationship between specific beliefs and problemsolving activities (Callejo & Vila, 2009). Learners’ beliefs regarding the level of effort required to solve a mathematics problem, as well as their selfconfidence in mathematics problemsolving, influence the learners’ involvement in solving a given problem.
From the above arguments it should be clear that school mathematics can be taught through problemsolving and that learners learn mathematics while solving problems. Therefore, the development and use of a problemsolving model has the potential to assist learners in the learning of mathematics.
Aim of the investigation
This article reports on one aspect of a broader study (Graaff, 2005), namely an empirical investigation into teaching problemsolving through developing a problemsolving model in a Grade 4 mathematics classroom.
Research method
A qualitative research method by means of a case study was employed in a Grade 4 mathematics classroom in an urban school in Gauteng, South Africa. A purposive sample of one Grade 4 mathematics class was chosen from the three Grade 4 classes (the population) taught by the participating teacher.
The Gauteng Department of Education, as well as the school, granted written permission for the research. Parents of all the participating learners granted informed consent. We guaranteed that learners’ identities would not be revealed.
The class was divided into six small groups of six learners each. These learners’ performance in mathematical problemsolving was studied for a period of eight months. For the duration of the investigation, all mathematics topics were taught through problemsolving.
Initially (before they had to solve any mathematical problems), a questionnaire regarding their experiences in problemsolving, their attitudes towards problemsolving, their efforts at problemsolving and their knowledge of solving problems was completed by the class group. Learners from one small group (the investigative group, from now on referred to as IG or Group A) were also interviewed with respect to their beliefs about mathematics, problemsolving and group work.
The small groups, labelled A−F, were each given different kinds of problems to solve. The teacher used problembased mathematics lessons (Van de Walle et al., 2013) to teach mathematics to the Grade 4 learners. While solving a problem, group members had to design a problemsolving ‘model’ (see Table 1), indicating step by step how a learner should go about solving the specific problem. After a problem had been solved, different groups from the class had the opportunity to illustrate and explain their problemsolving models.
TABLE 1: Summary of different groups’ efforts towards a problemsolving model. 
After the Grade 4 class, with the assistance of their teacher, had developed their problemsolving model (see Figure 4), the model was used to solve more mathematics problems.
Analysis and discussion of the findings
Learners’ responses to the questionnaire revealed negative attitudes and beliefs towards problemsolving that could be attributed to a lack of exposure to problemsolving in previous grades. When confronted with questions about solving problems, learners showed little confidence in answering these questions:
 Can you solve a mathematics problem (like the example)?
 Do you understand what is asked in the problem?
 Where would you start solving the problem?
 Do you have a plan in mind (to help you to solve the problem)?
This is consistent with the findings of Callejo and Vila (2009:123) that even high school mathematics learners are reluctant to solve unknown problems because of negative beliefs towards problemsolving.
From the interviews with the IG learners (Group A) the following became evident: although the group members did not regard mathematical problems as difficult as such, and were not afraid to attempt solving a problem, three learners admitted that they did not have an idea where to start to solve a given problem. Whereas only one group member read the problem more than once, trying to understand the problem, the other two learners used trial and error to solve the problem, but did not show any indication that they had tested their solution. One must conclude that they had a lack of knowledge about what problemsolving in mathematics entails.
As has been indicated, the initial data gathering about learners’ attitudes towards and knowledge about problemsolving was followed by the implementation of a problemsolving approach in the classroom. I now provide a few brief illustrating examples of group discussions during the problemsolving sessions as a background to the summary of the findings in Table 1.
Nine children attended a birthday party. On one of the plates on the table were 24 cocktail sausages, among other food. The birthday girl wanted everyone to have the same number of sausages. How many sausages did each child get to eat?
Two of the members of Group B read the problem to the other group members. Although Luke read fluently, Carin struggled to pronounce some of the words. James drew 24 cocktail sausages and nine learners beneath the sausages (see Figure 1).
Ockert: Let's distribute the sausages among the learners.
[James drew lines between the sausages and the nine learners. Adeli distributed the next nine sausages, while the others kept on counting.]
Group members: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.
Ockert: We divide each sausage into nine parts [referring to the remaining five sausages.]
[Adeli wrote down the answer as 215, clearly not the correct answer.]
(Graaff, 2005, p. 70)
A wall is built by laying 17 rows of bricks, using 69 bricks for each row. How many bricks are used?
While one learner from Group A was reading the problem to the other members of the group, another learner started writing down ‘69’ 17 times, indicating the rows of bricks in the wall. Another learner knew she had to multiply 69 by 17, but could not find the answer. A learner from Group C thought that adding the sum of 17 × 9 and 17 × 6 would give the correct answer.
A string of beads is made by using three red beads for every five blue beads. How many red beads are there in a string containing 60 blue beads?
One of the members of Group A, Jaco, read the problem to the others. Two of the girls in the group did not understand what ‘three red beads for every five blue beads’ meant. Another girl, Ronel (with encouragement from the teacher) tried to explain it to the others:
Ronel (to Jaco): Draw a big circle, put three red beads on the circle. [Jaco drew the circle with the 3 beads on the circle (see Figure 2).]
Ronel: Jaco, you have to draw five blue beads on the circle. We have to complete the circle using 50 blue beads.
Jane: No, 60 blue beads.
Ronel: Oh yes, 60.
Jaco: What now?
Ronel: Well, just continue the same way. Now you draw five blue beads and three red beads. [Jaco continued like this until there were a total of 60 blue beads. The group members then counted the red beads.]
Group members: 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 33, 36.
Ronel: There are 36 red beads on the string.
(Graaff, 2005, p. 68)
A girl has two skirts and three blouses that can be mixed and matched. How many outfits can she put together?
Amanda (a member of group E) took a pencil and drew the three blouses and two skirts, showing the different combinations in Figure 3a. Ben did not know the word ‘blouse’ and Amanda explained (to the other boys in the group) that a blouse is a girl's shirt. Jake showed Amanda that there are more ways to combine the skirts and blouses (see Figure 3b). Although the other group members agreed with Jake's solution, Carol drew her own picture, in order to assure herself that Jake had drawn all the possible combinations.
From the solutions to problems 1 to 7 (see Table 1), as well as other problems solved during the investigation, the following became clear:
 Some learners experienced difficulties in understanding a given problem.
 Most learners realised they had to do something (make a plan) to solve a given problem.
 Learners used different problemsolving strategies (draw a picture, do a calculation, act it out, etc.) to solve a problem.
 Learners were not able to solve some of the problems because their calculations were wrong.
 Learners did not always check solutions to given problems.
Not all the stages of the problemsolving models used by Polya (1973), Schoenfeld (1992, 2013), Fernandez et al. (1994), and others referred to earlier in the article, are reflected in Table 1. This result is in line with the views of McCormick et al. (1989) and Lesh and Zawojewski (2007) that learners are not problemsolvers by nature, and that to become successful problemsolvers, learners have to be supported in discovering problemsolving strategies. In addition, the social interaction between learners during the solving of the respective problems assisted them in exploring and constructing ‘new’ mathematical knowledge.
Each group had the opportunity to display and explain their model to the other groups. During the class discussions each group tried to convince the other groups that their model could be used to solve any problem in Grade 4 successfully. The teacher asked the learners the following questions:
Teacher:Can your group's model for problemsolving be used to solve a mathematics problem?
Learner 1: Yes.
Teacher: Will you always get the right answer when you use this model?
Learner 2: Sometimes, but not always.
Teacher: How would we know that the answer to the problem is wrong?
Learner 1: When you mark it wrong.
Learner 2: When the different groups’ answers are not the same.
Learner 3: When we haven’t answered the question.
Teacher: Yes! How do we know that we haven’t answered the question?
Learner 4: At the end, after we have done everything.
(Graaff, 2005, p. 79)
The teacher then asked the Grade 4 learners how they would guide other learners when (1) they didn’t understand a problem, (2) they had to make another plan when their plans to solve a problem did not work out and (3) how would they (the learners) know that their solution to a specific problem was correct. Learners reworked their models, resulting in the problemsolving model illustrated in Figure 4. This cyclical model closely resembles the mathematical problemsolving ‘method’ originally initiated by Polya (1973), and adapted by Fernandez et al. (1994) and others.

FIGURE 4: The problem solving model compiled by the Grade 4 learners. 

When the groups applied the developed model to solve some other mathematical problems, the initial observations of the teacher were confirmed, namely that learners with a welldeveloped number sense solved problems with more ease than those with a weak number sense, that learners’ ability to perform the basic operations correctly enabled them to solve problems and that learners needed basic mathematical knowledge and skills to solve problems.
Grade 4 learners, assisted by their mathematics teacher, were able to compile a problemsolving model while trying to solve novel mathematics problems. Although Grade 4 learners were able to use the compiled model to solve other mathematical problems, the success of the teaching of mathematics through problemsolving depends on more than one factor.
For problemsolving to be effective in a primary school mathematics classroom, the mathematics teacher has to plan thoroughly for teaching, involve the learners actively in the learningteaching activities and play a crucial role as facilitator by teaching problemsolving with the aid of a guideline such as a problemsolving model.
Mathematics teachers need to understand the role of problemsolving in learners’ everyday lives, as well as the importance of problemsolving in the mathematics classroom. By incorporating problemsolving in their classrooms, teachers will enable learners not only to attain one of the general aims of the South African curriculum, namely to identify and solve problems and make decisions using critical and creative thinking, but also to attain a specific aim for school mathematics, namely to apply mathematics to solve problems, using acquired knowledge and skills.
This article is partially based on the research by Magda Graaff (Graaff, 2005) in one of her Grade 4 mathematics classrooms in a Primary School in Randfontein, Gauteng, South Africa.
Competing interests
The author declare that she has no financial or personal relationship(s) that may have inappropriately influenced her in writing this article.
Author's contribution
S.N. (NorthWest University) wrote the manuscript based on the original research by Magda Graaff (Randfontein Primary School) under the supervision of S.N.
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