Using 'Think Alouds' to support pupils' mathematics problem solving in practice

By Gary Aubin posted 22-02-2022 12:42

Emma Barker —assistant headteacher, maths lead and Year 6 teacher from Amberley Primary School— explains how she uses the ​“Think Aloud” approach to model metacognition and support pupils’ mathematical problem-solving.

Read the blog then share your ideas in the discussions in the Teaching 11-19 Science and Primary STEM groups.

Why do we use 'Think Alouds'?

If we want pupils to tackle open ended problem solving in my school, we’ll often begin with Think Alouds.

Recommendation 3 of the EEF ​‘Improving Mathematics at Key Stages 2 and 3’ guidance report highlights that, to help pupils develop problem-solving skills, we need to provide opportunities for them to use and compare different approaches, and to monitor and reflect upon their effectiveness. Think Aloud approaches meet this end.

When I approach Think Alouds, I explore what the problem is asking me to do, and what I still need to find out. I narrate my thought processes to show how I knew that I needed to work systematically to find multiple solutions to a problem. I then model how to organise my working to record solutions using a table. I model monitoring and evaluating my approach, showing pupils how I knew that I had found all possible solutions.

Using a Think Aloud in this way gave my pupils insight into how I – as an ​‘expert’ learner – approach problem-solving, making my thought processes clear and transparent. Ultimately, this allowed pupils to become self-scaffolders, giving them a script to replay when it came to their own independent problem-solving.

When should we use ​‘Think Alouds’?

At Amberley primary school, we use Think Alouds frequently to model both the problem-solving process as a whole, and specific elements of this that we need teach explicitly. For example, this can be used to demonstrate how to get started with a problem, how to select an appropriate approach, or how to monitor progress or evaluate the strategies used.

Think Aloud models aren’t just used for whole class teaching. They’re also used when supporting small groups or delivering interventions. Staff then encourage pupils to narrate their thought processes when working with an adult. This helps our staff team to understand the strategies children use and whether or not these are effective. It also supports formative assessment by allowing us to check for understanding, which then informs future teaching.

What do we say in a ​‘Think Aloud’?

What I say during a Think Aloud depends on the stage of the problem-solving process I am modelling. I use the first person to ask myself questions whilst working. This shows learners the types of questions that they can ask themselves so that they can later apply this in their own independent problem-solving.

I use the metacognitive cycle – plan, monitor and evaluate – to structure my Think Alouds.

When planning my approaches, I ask myself questions such as, ​‘What do I notice?’, ​‘What information is given and how could this help me?’ and ​‘Have I seen something similar to this before?’

At this stage, I model choosing a strategy such as bar modelling to represent the problem and help me identify the steps needed to solve it. For pupils, this highlights the importance of considering prior knowledge and how to identify a way into the problem in their independent work.

I model monitoring my problem-solving approaches by asking: ​‘Is my approach working?’, ​‘I’m stuck; what could I do now?’, or ​‘Does my solution make sense?’

I’ve found that modelling this stage of the problem-solving process has been extremely valuable to show pupils how to check that their work is on track and makes sense in the context of the problem. This helps pupils to review their work more frequently and prevent pupils from blindly pursuing a strategy even when it becomes apparent that this just isn’t working.

Finally, I model evaluating my approach to problem-solving by asking myself: ​‘Did the approach work? Why?’ or ​‘What would I do differently next time?’ I also ensure that I model asking, ​‘What have I learned about myself and my learning?’ When considering my own practice, this evaluation is the element of the problem-solving process which I may previously have skipped over or missed out. However, I’ve come to realise this is vitally important because it helps pupils make connections and develop their understanding of themselves as learners more broadly.

For example, pupils in my class have learned to identify specific gaps in their own understanding, or areas where they feel more confident than others. For many children, this has helped them to identify their own targets for learning, for example in relation to particular multiplication facts, or mathematical concepts which they find challenging.

For us, using Think Aloud models to develop problem-solving has been the first step in helping learners to understand how to overcome challenges in their own learning, by showing how we – the adults working with them – do this ourselves.

Providing a Think Aloud model helps pupils to develop a toolkit of strategies which inform their future work, equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to become independent problem-solvers in the future.

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