Problem Solving, Using and Applying and Functional Mathematics

Age 5 to 18
Challenge Level

Problem Solving

The problem-solving process can be described as a journey from meeting a problem for the first time to finding a solution, communicating it and evaluating the route. There are many models of the problem-solving process but they all have a similar structure. One model is given below. Although implying a linear process from comprehension through to evaluation, the model is more of a flow backward and forward, revisiting and revising on the problem-solving journey.


This stage is about making sense of the problem by using strategies such as retelling, identifying relevant information and creating mental images. This can be helped by encouraging students to re-read the problem several times and record in some way what they understand the problem to be about (for example by drawing a picture or making notes).


This stage is about "homing in" on what the problem is actually asking solvers to investigate.
  • Can they represent the situation mathematically?
  • What is it that they are trying to find?
  • What do they think the answer might be (conjecturing and hypothesising)?
  • What might they need to find out before they can get started?
Central to this stage is identifying what is unknown and what needs finding.

Planning, analysis and synthesis

Having understood what the problem is about and established what needs finding, this stage is about planning a pathway to the solution. It is within this process that you might encourage pupils to think about whether they have seen something similar before and what strategies they adopted then. This will help them to identify appropriate methods and tools. Particular knowledge and skills gaps that need addressing may become evident at this stage.

Execution and communication

During the execution phase, pupils might identify further related problems they wish to investigate. They will need to consider how they will keep track of what they have done and how they will communicate their findings. This will lead on to interpreting results and drawing conclusions.


Pupils can learn as much from reflecting on and evaluating what they have done as they can from the process of solving the problem itself. During this phase pupils should be expected to reflect on the effectiveness of their approach as well as other people's approaches, justify their conclusions and assess their own learning. Evaluation may also lead to thinking about other questions that could now be investigated.

Using and Applying Mathematics

Aspects of using and applying reflect skills that can be developed through problem solving. For example:

In planning and executing a problem, problem solvers may need to:

  • select and use appropriate and efficient techniques and strategies to solve problems
  • identify what further information may be required in order to pursue a particular line of enquiry and give reasons for following or rejecting particular approaches
  • break down a complex calculation problem into simpler steps before attempting a solution and justify their choice of methods
  • make mental estimates of the answers to calculations
  • present answers to sensible levels of accuracy; understand how errors are compounded in certain calculations.

During problem solving, solvers need to communicate their mathematics for example by:

  • discussing their work and explaining their reasoning using a range of mathematical language and notation
  • using a variety of strategies and diagrams for establishing algebraic or graphical representations of a problem and its solution
  • moving from one form of representation to another to get different perspectives on the problem
  • presenting and interpreting solutions in the context of the original problem
  • using notation and symbols correctly and consistently within a given problem
  • examining critically, improve, then justifying their choice of mathematical presentation
  • presenting a concise, reasoned argument.

Problem solvers need to reason mathematically including through:

  • exploring, identifying, and using pattern and symmetry in algebraic contexts, investigating whether a particular case may be generalised further and understanding the importance of a counter-example; identifying exceptional cases
  • understanding the difference between a practical demonstration and a proof
  • showing step-by-step deduction in solving a problem; deriving proofs using short chains of deductive reasoning
  • recognising the significance of stating constraints and assumptions when deducing results
  • recognising the limitations of any assumptions that are made and the effect that varying the assumptions may have on the solution to a problem.

Functional Mathematics

Functional maths requires learners to be able to use mathematics in ways that make them effective and involved as citizens, able to operate confidently in life and to work in a wide range of contexts. The key processes of Functional Skills reflect closely the problem solving model but within three phases:

  • Making sense of situations and representing them
  • Processing and using the mathematics
  • Interpreting and communicating the results of the analysis