Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Newman's Prompts as a Problem Solving Process

I have been aware of Newman's prompts and had them filed in my 'to be investigated'pile for a long time.  They were developed by an Australian educator, Anne Newman (1977).  From what I understand they were designed as an error analysis to help teachers determine why students make mistakes with written mathematics problems.

The prompts are:

1.  Read the question. If you don't know a word, leave it out.
2.  What the question is asking you to do?
3.  How you are going to find the answer?
4.  Do it!  Use your maths skills to solve the problem -  "Talk aloud" as you do it, so that others can understand how you are thinking.
5.   Now, write down your answer to the question.

So a student solving a problem follows a five step process:

1.  Reading.
2.  Comprehending.
3.  Transformation. (selecting an appropriate strategy)
4.  Process skills.
5.  Encoding.

With a renewed focus on problem solving across our school and subsequent to a discussion at my last University intensive, I have experimented in using the prompts as a scaffold - that is a step by step process for students to follow when solving a problem.  I printed each of the prompts onto a poster and have strongly encouraged (over and over!) students to make sure they consciously acknowledge each step - even when they think a problem, or part of a problem is easy.  

Results have been fantastic!  What I had long noticed was that students were fantastic at Newman's Stage 4 - the process - what they (and probably their teachers) regard as mathematics.  So often I have seen a student give a great answer - to a different question!  Newman making the other stages of the problem solving explicit has been a really effective solution to the difficulties that our school had identified in our students' problem solving skills - that often our students new the mathematics involved in a problem, but were getting tripped up by the literacy aspects of the problem.

My biggest buzz in the classroom at them moment is listening to students prompt each other - "what is this question asking us to do?" "how are you going to find the answer?" and especially the smiles and sense of satisfaction at the encoding stage - "the answer to this problem is...." 

Newman's Prompts as a Scaffold from Jason Fisher on Vimeo.

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