Purpose – Problem solving is a skill in mathematics which although always relevant has heightened priority due to the changes in the new mathematics GCSE (Department for Education, 2013). It has previously been a skill which is deemed underdeveloped within mathematics and therefore is a theme which teachers are seeking to improve and nurture in order to align with the new changes. The GCSE is the formal qualification that students take at the end of Key Stage 4 (KS4) in the UK. The paper aims to discuss these issues.
Design/methodology/approach – The focus of the enquiry was to explore, using lesson studies, the differences in students’ approaches to problem solving. Consequently, key themes relating to the mediation of gender, ability, and academic motivation surfaced. Considering these themes, the paper subsequently reflects upon pedagogical practices which might effectively develop students’ ability to problem solve. The study took part in a mixed gender comprehensive secondary school with students taking part in the observation lesson ranging in age from 11 to 12 years old. The authors are the teachers who took part in the lesson study. The teachers implemented observation techniques in the form of video and peer observation with the accompanying teacher. In addition, students provided feedback on how they approached the problem-solving tasks through a form of semi-structured interviews, conducted via the use of video diaries where no teachers were present to prevent power bias. Following this, a thematic analysis of both the observations and student video diaries generated conclusions regarding how said key themes shaped the students’ approaches to problem solving.
Findings – Students’ frustration and competitive need to find a specific answer inhibited their ability to thoroughly explore the problem posed thus overseeing vital aspects needed to solve the problem set. Many students expressed a passion for problem solving due to its freedom and un-rigid nature, which is something teachers should nurture.
Originality/value – Generally, teachers are led by a culture in which attainment is the key. However, an atmosphere should be developed where the answer is not the key and students can explore the vibrant diversity mathematics and problem solving can offer.