Mathematics From Our Research Center

Top 10 Challenges to Teaching Math and Science Using Real Problems

By Alyson Klein — May 30, 2024 3 min read
African-american schoolgirl pupil student using working with microscope at biology chemistry lesson class at school lab. STEM concept.
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Nine in ten educators believe that using a problem-solving approach to teaching math and science can be motivating for students, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Teachers perceive lack of time as a big hurdle. In fact, a third of educators—35 percent—worry that teaching math or science through real-world problems—rather than focusing on procedures—eats up too many precious instructional minutes.

Other challenges: About another third of educators said they weren’t given sufficient professional development in how to teach using a real-world problem-solving approach. Nearly a third say reading and writing take priority over STEM, leaving little bandwidth for this kind of instruction. About a quarter say that it’s tough to find instructional materials that embrace a problem-solving perspective.

Nearly one in five cited teachers’ lack of confidence in their own problem solving, the belief that this approach isn’t compatible with standardized tests, low parent support, and the belief that student behavior is so poor that this approach would not be feasible.

The nationally representative survey included 1,183 district leaders, school leaders, and teachers, and was conducted from March 27 to April 14. (Note: The chart below lists 11 challenges because the last two on the list—dealing with teacher preparation and student behavior—received the exact percentage of responses.)

Trying to incorporate a problem-solving approach to tackling math can require rethinking long-held beliefs about how students learn, said Elham Kazemi, a professor in the teacher education program at the University of Washington.

Most teachers were taught math using a procedural perspective when they were in school. While Kazemi believes that approach has merit, she advocates for exposing students to both types of instruction.

Many educators have “grown up around a particular model of thinking of teaching and learning as the teacher in the front of the room, imparting knowledge, showing kids how to do things,” Kazemi said.

To be sure, some teachers have figured out how to incorporate some real-world problem solving alongside more traditional methods. But it can be tough for their colleagues to learn from them because “teachers don’t have a lot of time to collaborate with one another and see each other teach,” Kazemi said.

What’s more, there are limited instructional materials emphasizing problem solving, Kazemi said.

Though that’s changing, many of the resources available have “reinforced the idea that the teacher demonstrates solutions for kids,” Kazemi said.

Molly Daley, a regional math coordinator for Education Service District 112, which serves about 30 districts near Vancouver, Wash., has heard teachers raise concerns that teaching math from a problem-solving perspective takes too long—particularly given the pressure to get through all the material students will need to perform well on state tests.

Daley believes, however, that being taught to think about math in a deeper way will help students tackle math questions on state assessments that may look different from what they’ve seen before.

“It’s myth that it’s possible to cover everything that will be on the test,” as it will appear, she said. “There’s actually no way to make sure that kids have seen every single possible thing the way it will show up. That’s kind of a losing proposition.”

But rushing through the material in a purely procedural way may actually be counterproductive, she said.

Teachers don’t want kids to “sit down at the test and say, ‘I haven’t seen this and therefore I can’t do it,’” Daley said. “I think a lot of times teachers can unintentionally foster that because they’re so urgently trying to cover everything. That’s where the kind of mindless [teaching] approaches come in.”

Teachers may think to themselves: “’OK, I’m gonna make this as simple as possible, make sure everyone knows how to follow the steps and then when they see it, they can follow it,” Daley said.

But that strategy might “take away their students’ confidence that they can figure out what to do when they don’t know what to do, which is really what you want them to be thinking when they go to approach a test,” Daley said.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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