Doing this problem is an excellent way to work at problem solving for pupils in late primary and early secondary school. It is also a valuable challenge for pupils to work in a small group deciding on approaches. If the introductory story is told to the full it also is a good problem for pupils to have to sift
out what information they've been given is useful and what is irrelevant.

See also this article by a PGCE student about using this activity.

See also this article by a PGCE student about using this activity.

Telling the story with little or no warning as to the reason for them listening to it is a good way to get learners engaged with this problem. Having set the scene, you could begin by giving the class a chance to work in pairs to find the sixteen different combinations of cup/saucer.

It's a good idea to encourage children to work in pairs or small groups (perhaps up to 4) when solving this challenge. Give them time to work on it and then gather the whole group together to have a discussion about where they have got to so far. This sharing of ideas will help move everyone forward - you will find that different groups have approached the task in different ways (for example
some might set out the saucers first, others might keep the cup/saucer pairs together). Some might come up with relevant points which they think are important.

The results of this investigation would make a lovely classroom display.

If you need to check solutions you might like to use this interactive.

(When you have a complete solution it will say Well Done!!)

Tell me about this.

What do you think you have to do?

What have you tried so far?

Have you checked that all your cup and saucer combinations are different?

The problem of course enters into its own when questions are asked like, " I wonder what would happen if we . . . . ?" For example, children might consider using three sets of cups and saucers; using plates to go with the cups and saucers when you have three colours.

Possible support

For youngsters who have difficulties with colours you might want to use this image:

(A bigger version can be seen here.)

Children have done this activity using a variety of different materials to help them - it can be made part of the challenge for them to decide on the materials they will use. You could start with just three differently coloured cups/saucers to be arranged in a 3 by 3 grid so that the aim of the investigation is understood. (The Teddy Town problem is essentially the same investigation as this one, but starts at a simpler point.)

With children near the end of primary school, the activity can be approached in a different way although the challenges are essentially the same - it's all about using playing cards. The saucers would be replaced by the suits and the cups by the value of the cards. So we have four suits and four different values of the cards. [I've used the Ace, King, Queen and Jack, although of course any
four will do.]

Suppose we are using playing cards. There are quite a few solutions, but I'll take just one particular kind.

The first solution here puts the Jack, Queen, King and Ace of differing suits in the central 2 by 2 square. Then, the outside ones in each row and column are gradually puzzled out - often through a kind of logic. So here is a typical result.

The pupils can then be asked to tell you what they notice about this arrangement. Some will recall the rules and say that is what they notice. Others notice patterns. So, one way of opening it out further is to concentrate on the patterns of the solutions found. Here is another solution based upon the same starting places in the centre square.

You can get some discussion going concerning the patterns they see. Some will see the Aces forming a pattern - since they stand out more, so you may ask, " Do you see any other patterns in the way that the cards are placed.

Then there are the suits to look at, you can ask the pupils to describe, draw, record etc. what they've noticed.

Here, from the first solution above, is one of the many ways that they may come up with.

This shows how the suits form shapes, we have Green for Hearts, Blue for Spades, Grey for Clubs and Red for Diamonds.

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This shows how the values of the cards link to form shapes, we have Green for Kings, Blue for Aces, Grey for Queens and Red for Jacks.

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These two show patterns also derived from looking firstly at the suits and then the values.