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math problems for critical thinking

20 Math Critical Thinking Questions

math problems for critical thinking

Caroline Chaput

I am the founder of Boldly Inspired Curriculum. I started this journey to make other teacher’s lives easier by creating engaging and relevant resources that you’ll want to use year after year!

math problems for critical thinking

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give intentional and effective feedback for students with 10 critical thinking prompts for algebra 1

Math critical thinking questions are essential for student growth and understanding. We all want our students to be able to understand the why behind what they’re doing rather than just the process. Keep reading for math critical thinking questions that can be applied to any subject or topic!

critical thinking questions for any math class

Looking for more about critical thinking skills? Check out these blog posts:

  • Why You Need to Be Teaching Writing in Math Class Today
  • How to Teach Problem Solving for Mathematics
  • Turn the Bloom’s Taxonomy Verbs into Engaging Math Activities

When you want your students to defend their answers

  • Explain the steps you took to solve this problem
  • How do you know that your answer is correct?
  • Draw a diagram to prove your solution.
  • Is there a different way to solve this problem besides the one you used?
  • How would you explain _______________ to a student in the grade below you?
  • Why does this strategy work?
  • Use evidence from the problem/data to defend your answer in complete sentences.

When you want your students to justify their opinions

  • What do you think will happen when ______?
  • Do you agree/disagree with _______?
  • What are the similarities and differences between ________ and __________?
  • What suggestions would you give to this student?
  • What is the most efficient way to solve this problem?
  • How did you decide on your first step for solving this problem?

When you want your students to think outside of the box

  • How can ______________ be used in the real world?
  • What might be a common error that a student could make when solving this problem?
  • How is _____________ topic similar to _______________ (previous topic)?
  • What examples can you think of that would not work with this problem solving method?
  • What would happen if __________ changed?
  • Create your own problem that would give a solution of ______________.
  • What other math skills did you need to use to solve this problem?

Looking for content based critical thinking questions for your Algebra 1 or 2 classroom? Get 10 free writing prompts!

10 free math critical thinking writing prompts for algebra 1 and algebra 2

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20 Best Math Puzzles to Engage and Challenge Your Students

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Reviewed by Joshua Prieur, Ed.D.

  • Teacher Resources

1. Math crossword puzzles

2. math problem search, 3. math riddles.

It’s time for math class, and your students are bored.

It might sound harsh, but it’s true -- less than half of 8th grade students report being engaged at school according to this Gallup survey , and engagement levels only drop as students get older.

Math puzzles are one of the best -- and oldest -- ways to encourage student engagement. Brain teasers, logic puzzles and math riddles give students challenges that encourage problem-solving and logical thinking. They can be used in classroom gamification , and to inspire students to tackle problems they might have previously seen as too difficult.

Math puzzles for kids

Math crossword puzzles

Puzzles to Print

Take a crossword, and make it math: that’s the basic concept behind this highly adaptable math challenge. Instead of words, students use numbers to complete the vertical and horizontal strips. Math crossword puzzles can be adapted to teach concepts like money, addition, or rounding numbers. Solutions can be the products of equations or numbers given by clues.

Have students practice their addition, subtraction, multiplication and division skills by searching for hidden math equations in a word search-style puzzle . It can be adapted to any skill you want students to practice, and promotes a solid understanding of basic math facts.

My PreCalc students love riddles... can you figure out where the other dollar went?? #MathRiddles — Rachel Frasier (@MsFrasierMHS) January 8, 2019

Do your students love word problems ? Try giving them some math riddles that combine critical thinking with basic math skills. Put one up on the board for students to think about before class begins, or hand them out as extra practice after they’ve finished their work.

Prodigy is an engaging, game-based platform that turns math into an adventure! While it’s not a math puzzle in the traditional sense, Prodigy uses many of the same principles to develop critical thinking skills and mathematical fluency.

Students complete standards-aligned math questions to earn coins, collect pets and go on quests. Teachers can deliver differentiated math content to each student, prep for standardized tests and easily analyze student achievement data with a free account.

See how it works below!



is a “grid-based numerical puzzle” that looks like a combined number cross and sudoku grid. Invented in 2004 by a famous Japanese math instructor named Tetsuya Miyamoto, it is featured daily in The New York Times and other newspapers. It challenges students to practice their basic math skills while they apply logic and critical thinking skills to the problem.

6. Pre-algebraic puzzles

Pre-algebraic puzzles use fun substitutions to get students ready to perform basic functions and encourage them to build problem-solving skills. They promote abstract reasoning and challenge students to think critically about the problems in front of them. As an added bonus, students who suffer from math anxiety might find the lack of complicated equations reassuring, and be more willing to attempt a solution.

7. Domino puzzle board

Domino puzzle board

Games 4 Gains

There are hundreds of ways to use dominoes in your math classroom, but this puzzle gives students a chance to practice addition and multiplication in a fun, hands-on way. You can have students work alone or in pairs to complete the puzzle.


This online game and app challenges players to slide numbered tiles around a grid until they reach 2048. It’s super fun and not as easy as it sounds, so consider sending it home with students or assigning it after the rest of the lesson is over. It encourages students to think strategically about their next move, and it’s a great tool for learning about exponents.


Math in English

Kakuro , also called “Cross Sums,” is another mathematical crossword puzzle. Players must use the numbers one through nine to reach “clues” on the outside of the row. Decrease the size of the grid to make it easier for younger players, or keep it as is for students who need a challenge. Students can combine addition and critical thinking and develop multiple skills with one fun challenge.

10. Magic square

Magic square

Magic squares have been around for thousands of years, and were introduced to Western civilization by translated Arabic texts during the Renaissance. While magic squares can be a variety of sizes, the three by three grid is the smallest possible version and is the most accessible for young students.

This is also a great math puzzle to try if your students are tactile learners. Using recycled bottle caps, label each with a number from one to nine. Have your students arrange them in a three by three square so that the sum of any three caps in a line (horizontally, vertically and diagonally) equals 15.

11. Perimeter magic triangle

This activity uses the same materials and concept as the magic square, but asks students to arrange the numbers one to six in a triangle where all three sides equal the same number. There are a few different solutions to this puzzle, so encourage students to see how many they can find.

Sudoku is an excellent after-lesson activity that encourages logical thinking and problem solving. You’ve probably already played this classic puzzle, and it’s a great choice for your students. Sudoku puzzles appear in newspapers around the world every day, and there are hundreds of online resources that generate puzzles based on difficulty.

13. Flexagon

There’s a pretty good chance that by now, fidget spinners have infiltrated your classroom. If you want to counter that invasion, consider challenging your students to create flexagons. Flexagons are paper-folded objects that can be transformed into different shapes through pinching and folding, and will keep wandering fingers busy and focused on the wonders of geometry.

14. Turn the fish

Turn the fish

This puzzle seems simple, but it just might stump your students. After setting up sticks in the required order, challenge them to make the fish swim in the other direction -- by moving just three matchsticks.

15. Join the dots

Join the dots

Cool Math 4 Kids

This puzzle challenges students to connect all the dots in a three by three grid using only four straight lines. While it may sound easy, chances are that it will take your class a while to come up with the solution. (Hint: it requires some “out of the box” thinking.)

16. Brain teasers

While they don’t always deal directly with math skills, brain teasers can be important tools in the development of a child’s critical thinking skills. Incorporate brain teasers into a classroom discussion, or use them as math journal prompts and challenge students to explain their thinking.

Bonus: For a discussion on probability introduce an older class to the Monty Hall Problem, one of the most controversial math logic problems of all time.

17. Tower of Hanoi

This interactive logic puzzle was invented by a French mathematician named Edouard Lucas in 1883. It even comes with an origin story: According to legend, there is a temple with three posts and 64 golden disks.

Priests move these disks in accordance with the rules of the game, in order to fulfill a prophecy that claims the world will end with the last move of the puzzle. But not to worry -- it’s going to take the priests about 585 billion years to finish, so you’ll be able to fit in the rest of your math class.

Starting with three disks stacked on top of each other, students must move all of the disks from the first to the third pole without stacking a larger disk on top of a smaller one. Older students can even learn about the functions behind the solution: the minimum number of moves can be expressed by the equation 2n-1, where n is the number of disks.

18. Tangram


Tangram puzzles -- which originated in China and were brought to Europe during the early 19th century through trade routes -- use seven flat, geometric shapes to make silhouettes. While Tangrams are usually made out of wood, you can make sets for your class out of colored construction paper or felt.

Tangrams are an excellent tool for learners who enjoy being able to manipulate their work, and there are thousands of published problems to keep your students busy.


Similar to Sudoku, Str8ts challenges players to use their logic skills to place numbers in blank squares. The numbers might be consecutive, but can appear in any order. For example, a row could be filled with 5, 7, 4, 6 and 8 . This puzzle is better suited to older students, and can be used as a before-class or after-lesson activity to reinforce essential logic skills.

20. Mobius band

Is it magic? Is it geometry? Your students will be so amazed they might have a hard time figuring it out. Have them model the problem with strips of paper and see for themselves how it works in real life. With older students, use mobius bands to talk about geometry and surface area.

Why use math puzzles to teach?

Math puzzles encourage critical thinking.

Critical thinking and logic skills are important for all careers, not just STEM-related ones. Puzzles challenge students to understand structure and apply logical thinking skills to new problems.

A study from the Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education found that puzzles “develop logical thinking, combinatorial abilities, strengthen the capacity of abstract thinking and operating with spatial images, instill critical thinking and develop mathematical memory.”

All these skills allow young students to build a foundation of skills they’ll draw on for the rest of their lives, no matter what kind of post-secondary route they pursue.

They help build math fluency

Math games can help students build a basic understanding of essential math concepts, and as another study shows, can also help them retain concepts longer .

In the study, early elementary students gradually moved from using the “counting” part of their brains to complete math problems to the “remembering” part that adults use, suggesting math puzzles and repeated problems can help build the essential skill of math fluency .

Many of the math puzzles above allow students to practice essential addition, subtraction, multiplication and division skills, while advanced or modified problems can be used to introduce pre-algebraic concepts and advanced logic skills.

Math puzzles connect to existing curricula

No matter what curriculum you’re using, there’s a good chance it emphasizes problem-solving, critique and abstract thinking. This is especially true of Common Core math and similar curricula.

math problems for critical thinking

How Math Skills Impact Student Development

Math puzzles allow students to develop foundational skills in a number of key areas, and can influence how students approach math practically and abstractly. You can also tie them into strategies like active learning and differentiated instruction.

Instead of just teaching facts and formulas, math puzzles allow you to connect directly with core standards in the curriculum. You can also use them to provide a valuable starting point for measuring how well students are developing their critical thinking and abstract reasoning skills.

Tips for using math puzzles in the classroom

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Now that you’ve got some great math puzzles, it might be tricky to figure out how to best incorporate them into your classroom. Here are some suggestions for making the most of your lesson time:

Make sure the puzzles are the right level for your class

If the problems are too easy, students will get bored and disengage from the lesson. However, if the problems are too difficult to solve, there’s a good chance they’ll get frustrated and give up early.

There’s a time and a place

While fun math puzzles are a great way to engage your students in developing critical thinking skills, they’re not a tool for teaching important math concepts. Instead, use them to reinforce the concepts they’ve already learned.

Kitty Rutherford , a Mathematics Consultant in North Carolina, emphasizes that math puzzles and games shouldn’t be based solely on mental math skills , but on “conceptual understanding” that builds fluency over time. Math puzzles help build the essential balance between thinking and remembering.

Give them space to figure it out

Rachel Keen , from the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, conducted a study about problem-solving skills in preschoolers. She found that “playful, exploratory learning leads to more creative and flexible use of materials than does explicit training from an adult.”

Give your students space to struggle with a problem and apply their own solutions before jumping in to help them. If the problem is grade-appropriate and solvable, students will learn more from applying their own reasoning to it than just watching you solve it for them.

Model puzzles for your students

Use problems like the mobius strip to awe and amaze your students before drawing them into a larger discussion about the mathematical concept that it represents. If possible, make math puzzles physical using recycled craft supplies or modular tools.

Afterward, have a class discussion or put up math journal prompts. What methods did your students try? What tools did they use? What worked and what didn’t? Having students explicitly state how they got to their solution (or even where they got stuck) challenges them to examine their process and draw conclusions from their experience.

Final thoughts on math puzzles

Be aware that it might take a while to get all your students on board -- they could be hesitant about approaching unfamiliar problems or stuck in the unenthusiasm that math class often brings. Consider creating a weekly leaderboard in your classroom for the students that complete the most puzzles, or work through a few as a class before sending students off on their own.

Instead of yawns and bored stares , get ready to see eager participants and thoughtful concentration. Whether you choose to use them as an after-class bonus, a first day of school activity or as part of a targeted lesson plan, math puzzles will delight your students while also allowing them to develop critical skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

What are you waiting for? Get puzzling!

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6 Strategies for Increasing Critical Thinking with Problem Solving

By Mary Montero

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Learn six strategies for increasing critical thinking through word problems and error analysis. Also includes several FREE resources to improve critical thinking.

For many teachers, problem-solving feels synonymous with word problems, but it is so much more. That’s why I’m sharing my absolute favorite lessons and strategies for increasing critical thinking through problem solving below. You’ll learn six strategies for increasing critical thinking through mathematical word problems, the importance of incorporating error analysis into your weekly routines,  and several resources I use for improving critical thinking – almost all of which are free! I’ll also briefly touch on teaching students to dissect word problems in a way that enables them to truly understand what steps to take to solve the problem.

Learn six strategies for increasing critical thinking through word problems and error analysis. Also includes several FREE resources to improve critical thinking.

This post is based on my short and sweet (and FREE!) Increasing Critical Thinking with problem Solving math mini-course . When you enroll in the free course you’ll get access to everything you need to get started:

  • Problem Solving Essentials
  • Six lessons to implement into your classroom
  • How to Implement Error Analysis
  • FREE Error Analysis Starter Kit
  • FREE Mathematician Posters
  • FREE Multi-Step Problem Solving Starter Kit
  • FREE Task Card Starter Kit


Introduction to Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, “The term “problem solving” refers to mathematical tasks that have the potential to provide intellectual challenges for enhancing students’ mathematical understanding and development .)”

That’s a lot of words, but I’d like to focus in on the word POTENTIAL. I’m going to share with you strategies that move these tasks from having the potential to provide a challenge to actually providing that challenge that will enrich their mathematical understanding and development. 

If you’re looking for an introduction to multi-step problem solving, I have a free multi-step problem solving starter kit for that! 

I also highly encourage you to download and use my free Mathematician posters that help students see what their “jobs” are as mathematicians. Giving students this title of mathematician not only holds them accountable, but it gives them greater confidence and gives me very specific verbiage to use when discussing math with my students. 

The impacts of Incorporating Problem Solving

When I made the shift to incorporate problem solving into my everyday instruction intentionally, I saw a distinct increase in student understanding and application of mathematical concepts, more authentic connections to real-world mathematics scenarios, greater student achievement, and notably increased engagement. There are also ripple effects observed in other areas, as students learn grit and a growth mindset after tackling some more challenging problem-solving situations. I hope that by implementing some of these ideas, you see the very same shift.

Here’s an overview of some problem solving essentials I use to teach students to solve problems.

Routine vs. Non-Routine Problem Solving

Routine problems comprise the vast majority of the word problems we pose to students. They require using an algorithm through one or more of the four major operations, have relevance to real-world situations, and often have a distinct answer. They are solvable, and students can use several concrete strategies for solving, like “make a table” or “draw a picture” to solve.

Conversely, non-routine problem-solving focuses on mathematical reasoning. These are often more open-ended and allow students to make generalizations about math and numbers. There isn’t usually a straight path leading to the answer, there isn’t an algorithm readily available for finding the solution (or students are going to have to come up with the algorithm), and it IS going to require some level of experimentation and manipulation of numbers in order to solve it. In non-routine problems, students learn to look for patterns, work backwards, build models, etc. 

Incorporating both routine and non-routine problems into your instruction for EVERY student is critical. When solving non-routine problems, students can use some of the strategies they’ve learned for solving routine problems, and when solving routine problems, students benefit from a deeper understanding of the complexity of numbers that they gained from non-routine problems. For this training, we will focus heavily on routine problems, though the impacts of these practices will transition into non-routine problem solving.

Increasing Critical Thinking in Problem Solving

When tackling a problem, students need to be able to determine WHAT to do and HOW to do it.  Knowing the HOW is what you likely teach every day – your students know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. But knowing WHAT to do is arguably the most essential part of solving problems – once students know what needs to be done, then they can apply the conceptual skills – the algorithms and strategies – they’ve learned and will know how to solve. While dissecting word problems is an excellent starting point, exposing students to various ways to examine problems can help them figure out the WHAT. 

Being faced with a lengthy, complex word problem can be intimidating to even your most adept students. Having a toolbox of strategies to use when you tackle problems and seeing problems in various ways can enable students to get to the point where they feel comfortable knowing where to begin.

Shifting away from keywords

While it isn’t best practice to rely solely on operation “keywords” to determine what operation needs to occur when solving a problem, I’m not ready to fully ditch keyword-based instruction in math. I think there’s a huge difference between teaching students to blindly rely on keywords to determine which operation to use for a solution and using words found in the text to guide students in figuring out what to do. For that reason, I place heavy emphasis on using precise mathematical vocabulary , including specific operation keywords, and when students become accustomed to using that precise mathematical vocabulary every day, it really helps them to identify that language in word problems as well.

I also allow my students to dissect math word problems using strategies like CUBES , but in a way that is more aligned with best practice. 


Six Lessons for Easy Implementation

Here are six super quick “outside the box” word problem, problem solving lessons to begin implementing into your classroom. These lessons shouldn’t replace your everyday problem solving, but are instead extensions that will help students tackle those tricky problems they encounter everyday. As a reminder, we look at all of these lessons in the FREE Increasing Critical Thinking with problem Solving math mini-course .

Lesson #1: What’s the Question?

In this lesson, we’ll encourage students to see. just how many different questions can be asked about the same statements or information. We start with a typical, one-step, one-operation problem. Then we cross out or cover up the answer and ask students to generate possible questions.

After students have come up with a variety of questions, ask them to determine HOW they would solve for each one.

Reveal the question and ask students how they would solve this one and see if any of the questions they came up with match.

This activity is important because it demonstrates to students just how many different questions can be asked about the same statement or information. It’s perfect for your students who automatically pick out numbers and start “operating” on them blindly. I’ve had students come up with 5-8 questions with a single statement!

I like to do this throughout the year using different word problems based on the skill we’re focused on at the time AND skills we’ve previously mastered, but be careful not to only use examples based on the skill you’re teaching right then so their brains don’t automatically go to the same place.

These 32 What’s My Operation? task cards will help your student learn and review which operations to use for different types of word problems! They’re perfect to use as a quick assessment, game of SCOOT, math center activity, or homework.

Operation Task Cards 1 1644761

Lesson 2: Similar Scenarios

In this lesson, students will evaluate similar scenarios to determine the appropriate operations. Start with three similar scenarios requiring different operations and identify what situation is happening in each scenario (finding total, determining an amount, splitting or combining, etc.).

Read all three-word problems on a similar topic. Determine the similarity of all of them and determine which operation would be used to solve them. How does the situation/action of the problem help you determine what step to take?

I also created these differentiated word problem task cards after noticing my students struggling with which operation to choose, especially when given multiple problems from a similar scenario. They encourage students to select the appropriate operation for each word problem.

Whats the Operation

Lesson 3: Opposing Operations

In this lesson, students will determine relevant information from a set of facts, which requires a great deal of critical thinking to determine which operation to use. Give students a scenario and a variety of facts/information relating to the scenario as well as several questions to answer based on the facts . Students will focus on determining HOW they will solve each question using only the relevant information. 

These Operation Fascination task c ards engage students in critical thinking about operations. Each card has a scenario, multiple clues and facts to support the scenario, and four questions to accompany each scenario. The questions are a variety of operations so that students can see how using the same information can solve multiple problems.

Operation Task Cards 5243676

Lesson 4: Next Level Numberless

In this lesson, we’ll take numberless word problems to the next level by developing a strong conceptual understanding of word problems. Give students scenarios without numbers and have them write a question and/or insert numbers using a specific operation and purpose . This requires a great deal of thinking to not only determine the situation, but to also figure out numbers that fit into the situation in a way that makes sense.

By integrating these types of math problems into your daily lessons, you can significantly enhance your students’ comprehension of word problems and problem-solving. These numberless word problem task cards are the ideal to improve your students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They offer a variety of numbered and numberless word problems.

Numberless Word Problems 1 9656236

Lesson 5: Story Situations

In this lesson, we’ll discuss the importance of students generating their own word problems with a given set of information. This requires a great deal of quantitative reasoning as students determine how they would use a given set of numbers to create a realistic situation. Present students with two predetermined numbers and a theme. Then have students write a word problem, including a question, using the given information. 

Engage your students in additional practice with these differentiated division task cards that require your students to write their OWN word problems (and create real-world relevance in their learning!). Each task card has numbers and a theme that students use to guide their thinking and creation of a word problem.

Long Division Task Cards 2 1289301

Lesson 6: No Scenario Solving

In this lesson, we’ll decontextualize problem solving and require students to create the situation, represent it numerically, and solve. It’s a cognitively demanding task! Give students an operation and a purpose (joining, separating, comparing, etc.) with no other context, numbers, numbers, or theme. Then have students generate a word problem.

For additional practice, have students swap problems to identify the operation, purpose, and solution.

Implementing Error Analysis

Error analysis is an exceptional way to promote thinking and learning, but how do we teach students to figure out which type of math error they’ve made? This error analysis starter kit can help!

First, it is very rare that I will tell my students what error they have made in their work. I want to challenge them to figure it out on their own. So, when I see that they have a wrong answer, I ask them to go back and figure out where something went wrong. Because I resist the urge to tell them right away where their error is, my students tend to get a lot more practice identifying them!

Second, when I introduce a concept, I always, always, always create anchor charts with students and complete interactive notebook activities with them so that they have step-by-step procedures for completing tasks right at their fingertips. I have them go back and reference their notebooks while they are looking at their errors.  Usually, they can follow the anchor chart step-by-step to make sure they haven’t made a conceptual error, and if they have, they can identify it.

Third, I let them use a calculator. When worst comes to worst, and they are fairly certain they haven’t made a conceptual mistake to identify, I let them get out a calculator and start computing, step-by-step to see where they’ve made a mistake.

IF, after taking these steps, a student can’t figure out their mistake (especially if I find that it’s a conceptual mistake), I know I need to go back and do some individual reteaching with them because they don’t have a solid understanding of the concept.

This FREE addition error analysis is a good place to start, no matter the grade level. I show them the process of walking through the problem and how best to complete an error analysis task.

Digging Deeper into Error Analysis

Once students show proficiency in the standard algorithm (or strategies), I take it a step further and have them dive into error analysis where they can show a “reverse” understanding as they evaluate mistakes made and fix them. Being able to identify an error in someone else’s work requires higher order thinking not found in most other projects or activities and certainly not found in basic math fact completion.

First, teach students the difference between a computational error and a conceptual error. 

  • Computational is when they make a mistake in basic math facts. This might look as simple as  64/8 does not equal 7. Oops!
  • A Conceptual or Procedural Error is when they make a mistake in the procedure or concept. 
  • I can’t tell you how many times students show as not proficient on a topic when the mistakes they are making are COMPUTATIONAL and not conceptual or procedural. They don’t need more review in how to use a strategy… they need to slow down and pay closer attention to their math facts!

Once we’ve introduced the types of errors they should be looking out for, we move on to actually analyzing these errors in someone else’s work and fixing the mistake.

I have created error analysis tasks for you to use with you students so they can identify the errors, types of errors, rework the problem, and create their own version of the problem and solve it. I have seen great success with incorporating these tasks into ALL of my math units. I even have kids beg to take their error analysis tasks out to recess to finish! These are great resources to start:

  • Error Analysis Bundle
  • 3rd Grade Word Problem of the Day
  • 4th Grade Word Problem of the Day
  • 5th Grade Word Problem of the Day

The final step in using error analysis is actually having students correct their OWN mistakes. Once I have instructed on types of errors, I will start by simply telling them, Oops! You’ve made a computational error here! That way they aren’t furiously looking through the procedure for a mistake, instead they are looking to see where they computed wrong. Conversely, I’ll tell them if they’ve made a procedural mistake, and that can guide them in figuring out what they need to look for.

Looking at the different types of errors students are making is essential to guiding my instruction as well, so even though it takes a bit longer to grade things like this, it is immensely helpful to me as I make adjustments to my instruction.

Resources and Ideas for Critical Thinking

I’ve compiled a collection of websites for complex tasks with multiple, open-ended answers and scenarios. The majority of these tasks are non-routine and so easy to implement. I often post these tasks and allow students short bursts of time to strategize and plan for a solution. Consider using the tasks and problems from these sites as warm-ups, extensions of your morning meeting, during enrichment groups, or on a Problem of the Week board. I also highly encourage you to incorporate these non-routine problems into your core instruction time for all students at least once or twice a month.

  • NRICH provides thousands of FREE online mathematics resources for ages 3 to 18. The tasks focus on developing problem-solving skills, perseverance, mathematical reasoning, the ability to apply knowledge creatively in unfamiliar contexts, and confidence in tackling new challenges..
  • Open Middle offers challenging math word problems that require a higher depth of knowledge than most problems that assess procedural and conceptual understanding. They support the Common Core State Standards and provide students with opportunities for discussing their thinking. All problems have a “closed beginning,” meaning that they all start with the same initial problem, a “closed-end” meaning that they all end with the same answer, and an “open middle” meaning that there are multiple ways to approach and ultimately solve the problem.
  • Mathcurious offers interactive digital puzzles. Each adventure is dedicated to exploring the world of math and sharing experiences, knowledge, and ideas.
  • Robert Kaplinsky shares math strategies, lessons, and resources designed to create problem solvers. The lessons are detailed and challenging!
  • Mathigon “The mathematical playground” offers free manipulatives, activities, and lessons to make online learning interactive and engaging. The digital manipulates are a must-use!
  • Fractal Foundation uses fractals to inspire interest in science, math and art. It has numerous fractal activities, software to help your students create their own fractals, and more.
  • Greg Fletcher 3 Act Tasks contain engaging math videos with guiding questions. You can also download recording sheets to go with each video.

Mary Montero

I’m so glad you are here. I’m a current gifted and talented teacher in a small town in Colorado, and I’ve been in education since 2009. My passion (other than my family and cookies) is for making teachers’ lives easier and classrooms more engaging.

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math problems for critical thinking

5. Teaching Mathematical Reasoning: Critical Math Thinking Through Problem-Solving and Modeling

  • Mathematical problem-solving : This approach makes students think conceptually about problems before applying tools they’ve learned.
  • Mathematical modeling : Modeling projects give students experience in weighing several factors against one another and using mathematical knowledge to make decisions.

What is mathematical reasoning? The short answer is that is that is reasoning with math, and in a sense, it’s the skill that underlies all other math skills.

I. Mathematical Problem-Solving

An emphasis on open-ended mathematical problem-solving can help develop mathematical reasoning skills and address a problem teachers have long been concerned about: too much “rote” learning in math. 

Too often students spend time in math class memorizing procedures and applying them mindlessly to problems. This leads to errors when students are confronted with unfamiliar problems. It also contributes to a widespread misperception of math as boring and lacking relevance to everyday life. 

On the other hand, attempting to remedy this problem by giving students open-ended problems has its own drawbacks. Without the conceptual and methodological tools to solve these problems students become frustrated and disengaged. It can end up being an inefficient way to spend class time.  

Although learning fundamental math skills like algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing is absolutely critical for students in the early grades, the deeper mathematical problem-solving skills are the ones we really want students to graduate with. How can we ensure they do?

The deeper mathematical problem-solving skills are the ones we really want students to graduate with.

math problems for critical thinking

Evidence suggests that skills in mathematical problem-solving lead to more general improvements in outcomes related to math. They help students acquire a deeper understanding of mathematical reasoning and concepts. 

For instance, the commutative property, which most students learn applies to addition and multiplication problems (changing the order of the operations doesn’t affect the outcome), also applies to other logical and practical situations. A familiarity with some of these situations fosters deeper conceptual understanding, and deeper conceptual understanding leads to better critical thinking.

And learning these skills helps students improve outcomes related to critical thinking more generally. For example, students who become skilled in mathematical problem-solving tend to also:

  • Create beneficial habits of mind — persistence, thoroughness, creativity in solution-finding, and improved self-monitoring.
  • Break down hard problems into easier parts or reframing problems so that they can think about them more clearly. 
  • Some problem solving tactics are applicable to situations well beyond math: making a visualization of a situation to understand it more clearly; creating a simplified version of the problem to more easily address the essence of the problem; creating branches of possibilities to solve the problem; creating “what if” example cases to test key assumptions, etc.
  • Elevate the value of discussion and argumentation over simple appeals to authority.

Small-group mathematical problem solving targets skills that traditional mathematics instruction doesn’t. Instead of just finding a match between an algorithm and a question, students must: adapt or create an algorithm; evaluate and debate the merits of different solution paths; and verify their solution through additional evidence.

Small-group mathematical problem solving targets skills that traditional mathematics instruction doesn’t.

This process continues until the class has thoroughly explored the problem space, revealing multiple solution paths and exploring variations on the problem or contrasting problem-types.

Of course, the usefulness of a question like this depends on what students already know. If students don’t already know that chickens have two legs and pigs have four, they’re just going to be confused by the problem (and the explanation of the solution). It also requires some other basic skills—for instance, that if one chicken has two legs, four chickens would have eight.

As a way of evaluating student growth, teachers could also include some of these open-ended problems in homework assignments or as extra credit assignments.

Lesson Plan Outline

An example that might be appropriate for fifth grade is something like the following: A farmer has some pigs and some chickens. He finds that together they have 70 heads and 200 legs. How many pigs and how many chickens does he have? Divide the class into student groups of three to four. Have students spend a few minutes reading over the problem individually. Then let student groups discuss possible solution paths. The teacher walks around the classroom, monitoring the groups. Then the teacher leads a whole-class discussion about the problem.

  • So how did you go about thinking about the problem?
  • Show us how you got your answer and why you think it’s right. This might mean that a student goes up to the board to illustrate something if a verbal explanation is inadequate.
  • And what was the answer you got?
  • Does anyone else have a different way of thinking about the problem? If there are other ways of solving the problem that students didn’t come up with, teachers can introduce these other ways themselves.

Developing Math Problem-Solving Skills

Teachers should keep in mind the following as they bring mathematical problem-solving activities into their classrooms:

  • Problem selection . Teachers have to select grade-appropriate problems. A question like “John is taller than Mary. Mary is taller than Peter. Who is the shortest of the three children?” may be considered an exercise to older students — that is, a question where the solutions steps are already known — but a genuine problem to younger students. It’s also helpful when problems can be extended in various ways. Adding variation and complexity to a problem lets students explore a class of related problems in greater depth.
  • Managing student expectations . Introducing open-ended math problems to students who haven’t experienced them before can also be confusing for the students. Students who are used to applying algorithms to problems can be confused about what teachers expect them to do with open-ended problems, because no algorithm is available.
  • Asking why . Asking students to explain the rationale behind their answer is critical to improving their thinking. Teachers need to make clear that these rationales or justifications are even more important than the answer itself. These justifications give us confidence that an answer is right. That is, if the student can’t justify her answer, it almost doesn’t matter if it’s correct, because there’s no way of verifying it.

math problems for critical thinking

II. Mathematical Modeling

Another approach is mathematical modeling. Usually used for students in middle or high school, mathematical modeling brings math tools to bear on real-world problems, keeping students engaged and helping them to develop deeper mathematical reasoning and critical thinking skills.

Math modeling is an extremely common practice in the professional world. Investors model returns and the effects of various events on the market; business owners model revenue and expenses, buying behavior, and more; ecologists model population growth, rainfall, water levels, and soil composition, among many other things. 

But, despite these many applications and the contributions it can make to general mathematical reasoning and critical thinking skills, mathematical modeling is rarely a main component of the math curriculum. Although textbook examples occasionally refer to real-world phenomena, the modeling process is not commonly practiced in the classroom.

Modeling involves engaging students in a big, messy real-world problem. The goals are for students to:

  • refine their understanding of the situation by asking questions and making assumptions,
  • leverage mathematical tools to solve the problem,
  • make their own decisions about how to go about solving the problem,
  • explain whether and how their methods and solutions make sense,
  • and test or revise their solutions if necessary.

Mathematical modeling typically takes place over the course of several class sessions and involves working collaboratively with other students in small groups.

Modeling is not just about getting to a “right” answer — it’s about considering factors beyond mathematics as well.

Modeling also offers the opportunity to integrate other material across the curriculum and to “think mathematically” in several different contexts. Modeling is not just about getting to a “right” answer — it’s about considering factors beyond mathematics as well. For example, students deal with questions like:

  • What is a “fair” split? 
  • What level of risk should someone tolerate?
  • What tradeoffs should a society make?

In others words, students come to see mathematics as the socially indispensable tool that it is, rather than an abstract (and sometimes frustrating) school subject.

Mathematical Modeling and Critical Thinking

Research suggests that the ability to solve abstractly framed academic math problems is not necessarily related to mathematical reasoning more broadly: that is, the ability to use math well in everyday life or to integrate mathematical thinking into one’s decision-making. Students may be able to follow procedures when given certain cues, but unable to reason about underlying concepts. 

It’s also very common to hear complaints from students about math — that either they aren’t “ math people ,” that math is irrelevant, or that math is simply boring.

Mathematical modeling is one approach to resolving both these problems. It asks students to move between the concreteness of real — or at least relatively realistic — situations and the abstraction of mathematical models. Well-chosen problems can engage student interest. And the practice emphasizes revision, step-by-step improvement, and tradeoffs over single solution paths and single right-or-wrong answers.

math problems for critical thinking

Mathematical modeling often begins with a general question, one that may initially seem only loosely related to mathematics:

  • how to design an efficient elevator system, given certain constraints;
  • what the best gas station is to visit in our local area;
  • how to distinguish between two kinds of flies, given some data about their physical attributes.

Then, over the course of the modeling process, students develop more specific questions or cases, adding constraints or assumptions to simplify the problem. Along the way, students identify the important variables — what’s changing, and what’s not changing? Which variables are playing the biggest role in the desired outcomes?

Students with little experience in modeling can leap too quickly into looking for a generalized solution, before they have developed a feel for the problem. They may also need assistance in developing those specific cases. During this part of the process, it can be easiest to use well-defined values for some variables. These values may then become variables later on.

After students explore some simplifying cases, then they work on extensions of these cases to reach ever more general solutions.

A key part of this activity is letting students be creative — students will often come up with unusual or especially innovative solutions.

Throughout the modeling process, the teacher may need to point out missing assumptions or constraints, or offer other ways of reframing the problem. For any given modeling problem, some solutions are usually more obvious than others, which leads to common stages students may reach as they solve the problem. But a key part of this activity is letting students be creative — students will often come up with unusual or especially innovative solutions.

A sample problem, from the Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Mathematical Modeling Education is below:

math problems for critical thinking

This problem involves variables that aren’t necessarily immediately apparent to students. For instance, the size of the gas tank, and how much gas you fill up on per trip. As students manage this specific case, they can take other hypothetical scenarios to generalize their solution: if it’s 10 miles away, how cheap would the gas have to be to make it worth it? What about the time spent in the car — is there a value to put on that?

Many modeling problems can be arbitrarily extended in various directions. Instead of just considering the best gas station to go to for a single car, for instance, students can explore the behavior of a fleet of trucks on set routes or seasonal changes to gas prices.

It’s also possible to include shorter modeling activities, where students work together in pairs or small groups to extend a problem or interpret the meaning of a solution.

These kinds of modeling activities are not reserved solely for older students. One example of a modeling problem for students in elementary school might be something like: what should go in a lunchbox? Students can talk about what kinds of things are important to them for lunch, “mathematize” the problem by counting student preferences or coming up with an equation (e.g., lunch = sandwich + vegetable + dessert + drink); and even explore geometrically how to fit such items into a lunchbox of a certain size.

Teaching Mathematical Modeling: Further Key Factors

Mathematical modeling activities can be challenging for both teachers and students. 

Often, mathematical modeling activities stretch over several class periods. Fitting modeling activities in, especially if standardized tests are focused on mathematical content, can be challenging. One approach is to design modeling activities that support the overall content goals.

The teacher’s role during mathematical modeling is more like a facilitator than a lecturer. Mathematical modeling activities are considerably more open-ended than typical math activities, and require active organization, monitoring, and regrouping by the teacher. Deciding when to let students persevere on a problem for a bit longer and when to stop the class to provide additional guidance is a key skill that only comes with practice.

The teacher’s role during math modeling is more like a facilitator than a lecturer.

Students — especially students who have traditionally been successful in previous math classes — may also experience frustration when encountering modeling activities for the first time. Traditional math problems involve applying the right procedure to a well-defined problem. But expertise at this kind of mathematical reasoning differs markedly from tackling yet-to-be-defined problems with many possible solutions, each of which has tradeoffs and assumptions. Students might feel unprepared or even that they’re being treated unfairly.

Students also have to have some knowledge about the situation to reason mathematically about it. If the question is about elevators, for example, they need to know that elevators in tall buildings might go to different sets of floors; that elevators have a maximum capacity; that elevators occasionally break and need to be repaired. 

Finally, the mathematical question needs to be tailored to students’ experience and interests. Asking a group of students who don’t drive about how to efficiently purchase gas won’t garner student interest. Teachers should use their familiarity with their students to find and design compelling modeling projects. This is chance for both students and teachers to be creative. 

To download the PDF of the Teachers’ Guide

(please click here)

Sources and Resources

O’Connell, S. (2000). Introduction to Problem Solving: Strategies for The Elementary Classroom . Heinemann. A recent handbook for teachers with tips on how to implement small-group problem solving. , managed by Jo Boaler.  A community with lots of resources for small-group problem solving instruction.

Yackel, E., Cobb, P., & Wood, T. (1991). Small group interactions as a source of learning opportunities in second-grade mathematics . Journal for research in mathematics education , 390-408. Education research that illustrates how small-group problem solving leads to different kinds of learning opportunities than traditional instruction.

Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Mathematical Modeling Education , 2nd ed. (2019). Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications & Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.  An extensive guide for teaching mathematical modeling at all grade levels.

Hernández, M. L., Levy, R., Felton-Koestler, M. D., & Zbiek, R. M. (March/April 2017). Mathematical modeling in the high school curriculum . The variable , 2(2). A discussion of the advantages of mathematical modeling at the high school level.

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A Math Word Problem Framework That Fosters Conceptual Thinking

This strategy for selecting and teaching word problems guides students to develop their understanding of math concepts.

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Word problems in mathematics are a powerful tool for helping students make sense of and reason with mathematical concepts. Many students, however, struggle with word problems because of the various cognitive demands. As districtwide STEAM professional development specialists, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on supporting our colleagues and students to ensure their success with word problems. We found that selecting the right word problems, as well as focusing on conceptual understanding rather than procedural knowledge, provides our students with real growth.

As our thinking evolved, we began to instill a routine that supports teaching students to solve with grit by putting them in the driver’s seat of the thinking. Below you’ll find the routine that we’ve found successful in helping students overcome the challenges of solving word problems.

Not all word problems are created equal

Prior to any instruction, we always consider the quality of the task for teaching and learning. In our process, we use word problems as the path to mathematics instruction. When selecting the mathematical tasks for students, we always consider the following questions:

  • Does the task align with the learning goals and standards?
  • Will the task engage and challenge students at an appropriate level, providing both a sense of accomplishment and further opportunities for growth?
  • Is the task open or closed? Open tasks provide multiple pathways to foster a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and skills. Closed tasks can still provide a deep understanding of mathematical concepts and skills if the task requires a high level of cognitive demand. 
  • Does the task encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills?
  • Will the task allow students to see the relevance of mathematics to real-world situations?
  • Does the task promote creativity and encourage students to make connections between mathematical concepts and other areas of their lives?

If we can answer yes to as many of these questions as possible, we can be assured that our tasks are rich. There are further insights for rich math tasks on NRICH and sample tasks on Illustrative Mathematics and K-5 Math Teaching Resources .

Developing conceptual understanding

Once we’ve selected the rich math tasks, developing conceptual understanding becomes our instructional focus. We present students with Numberless Word Problems and simultaneously use a word problem framework to focus on analysis of the text and to build conceptual understanding, rather than just memorization of formulas and procedures. 

  • First we remove all of the numbers and have students read the problem focusing on who or what the problem is about; they visualize and connect the scenario to their lives and experiences. 
  • Next we have our students rewrite the question as a statement to ensure that they understand the questions.
  • Then we have our students read the problem again and have them think analytically. They ask themselves these questions: Are there parts? Is there a whole? Are things joining or separating? Is there a comparison? 
  • Once that’s completed, we reveal the numbers in the problem. We have the students read the problem again to determine if they have enough information to develop a model and translate it into an equation that can be solved.
  • After they’ve solved their equation, we have students compare it against their model to check their answer.  

Collaboration and workspace are key to building the thinking

To build the thinking necessary in the math classroom , we have students work in visibly random collaborative groups (random groups of three for grades 3 through 12, random groups of two for grades 1 and 2). With random groupings, we’ve found that students don’t enter their groups with predetermined roles, and all students contribute to the thinking.

For reluctant learners, we make sure these students serve as the scribe within the group documenting each member’s contribution. We also make sure to use nonpermanent vertical workspaces (whiteboards, windows [using dry-erase markers], large adhesive-backed chart paper, etc.). The vertical workspace provides accessibility for our diverse learners and promotes problem-solving because our students break down complex problems into smaller, manageable steps. The vertical workspaces also provide a visually appealing and organized way for our students to show their work.  We’ve witnessed how these workspaces help hold their attention and improve their focus on the task at hand.

Facilitate and provide feedback to move the thinking along

As students grapple with the task, the teacher floats among the collaborative groups, facilitates conversations, and gives the students feedback. Students are encouraged to look at the work of other groups or to provide a second strategy or model to support their thinking. Students take ownership and make sense of the problem, attempt solutions, and try to support their thinking with models, equations, charts, graphs, words, etc. They work through the problem collaboratively, justifying their work in their small group. In essence, they’re constructing their knowledge and preparing to share their work with the rest of the class. 

Word problems are a powerful tool for teaching math concepts to students. They offer a practical and relatable approach to problem-solving, enabling students to understand the relevance of math in real-life situations. Through word problems, students learn to apply mathematical principles and logical reasoning to solve complex problems. 

Moreover, word problems also enhance critical thinking, analytical skills, and decision-making abilities. Incorporating word problems into math lessons is an effective way to make math engaging, meaningful, and applicable to everyday life.


Critical mathematical thinking skills create more engaged citizens

Developing children’s understanding of maths helps them navigate personal, social and political challenges, says an expert from UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture.

Critical mathematical thinking is using maths techniques and reasoning across broad contexts. “It's a really powerful way of describing, thinking about and approaching the world, of finding patterns and forecasting different outcomes,” says Prof. Beswick. Photo: Getty Images.

Improving children’s understanding of maths helps them develop more balanced decision-making, says a UNSW expert in mathematics education. Using maths critically allows us to consider complex personal and socio-political issues, such as health, the economy and the environment, says Professor Kim Beswick , Director of the Gonski Institute and Head of the School of Education at UNSW.

“Mathematical practices are fundamental to navigating our everyday lives. Maths helps us make well-founded judgements about all sorts of [day-to-day] things, including food, distance and time, costs, loans and sports, all of which need to be considered in the context of other considerations and priorities,” she says. “Few decisions are purely mathematical; they have individual and societal impacts beyond the maths that also need to be considered.”

With today’s world characterised by rapid change, it’s important we equip children to engage with its challenges, she says.

“We constantly hear data about different elements of our lives, from accelerating rates of global warming to the prevalence of vaping and its health risks,” she says.

“If people don’t understand the maths, or they’re not confident in it, they can’t engage sensibly in conversations about what might or might not be effective [interventions] or understand the degree of [their] personal risk.”

Read more: The quest to make Australia great at maths again . 

Prof. Beswick’s research examines the beliefs and knowledge underpinning maths teaching, particularly in relation to teachers’ expectations of and aspirations for their students. A maths teacher for more than 13 years, she’s committed to enhancing the quality of maths education for all students.

Teaching children critical mathematical thinking lays the foundation for sound decision-making and problem-solving, she says. Critical mathematical thinking is using maths techniques and reasoning across broad contexts.

“It's a really powerful way of describing, thinking about and approaching the world, of finding patterns and forecasting different outcomes,” she says. “It’s key to finding solutions to many existing and emerging national and international challenges, including how to respond to technological, environmental, economic and social change.”

Maths games 2

It's important that maths is taught in such a way that children understand its first principles “to make sure they can make sense of the calculation, as well as knowing how to do the calculation, and that will help them make sense of the world”, says Prof. Beswick. Photo: Getty Images

Developing the capacity to reflect on the consequences of proposed solutions – social and ethical – is a key feature, she says. “For example, when we asked a class of high school students in Brisbane to consider whether or not residents of flood-affected areas should take up the government’s offer to buy back their properties, they could see, mathematically, that the buy back was good deal, but realised there were other considerations,” she says.

“Can I find somewhere to buy that is not flood-prone and still close enough to work? How will it affect social networks? What childcare and school options are available in an area I could move to? These things affect different individuals differently so there is not one right answer.”

Critical mathematical thinking encourages children to think about the way information is presented or framed. “Of course, real life is messier than maths problems, but critical mathematical thinking encourages kids to consider the assumptions made and their limitations – that’s the critical thinking part,” she says.

“It encourages them to ask the right questions. Do I have all the information I need to understand this? What don’t I know? What should I ask? How can I find out that other information? What other factors should I consider? It's those sorts of questions. Who's got a vested interest in this story I just read in the newspaper?”

“Focusing only on the maths, separate from its applications, results in students thinking maths is irrelevant."

And while it promotes a workforce supported by STEM capabilities, it’s more than that, she says. “[Developing your critical maths thinking] gives you more agency in the world. You can make better arguments. You can understand your medical treatment, or what your bank manager is telling you, what a proposed government policy might mean for you and for others,” she says.

“And you can ask more searching questions. It's what helps you find employment and engage in society as an informed citizen. It makes learning maths meaningful – something you can do to have a positive influence in the world, not simply for academic purposes.”

Maths teaching needs to be about more than skills and routine problems

The results of international student assessment programs, such as the OECD's  Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), indicate that Australian students find mathematical reasoning difficult. “This highlights the urgent need to address teaching practices that promote students’ critical maths thinking within Australian schools,” says Prof. Beswick.

“What happens way too often is that students learn the routine algorithmic material – they learn the processes that get the right answers, they can solve equations, for example – but often when it comes to some real-life problem, they avoid maths. It is the very last resort. They don’t have the depth of understanding that supports confidence.”

It's important that maths is taught in such a way that children understand its first principles “to make sure they can make sense of the calculation, as well as knowing how to do the calculation, and that will help them make sense of the world”, she says.

“There are great teachers out there who do just that, but it doesn’t happen nearly enough. International studies that ask students about what goes on in the classrooms depict a very traditional approach to lessons in Australia.”  

The issue is exacerbated by the current teacher shortage that means many teachers are teaching out of area, she says. Typically, in Australian classrooms, maths classes are characterised by studying lots of short problems, “whereas other countries, such as Japan, tend to do fewer problems but spend longer on them”, she says.

“Moving in that direction would be useful so kids can really delve into the problem, and what's going on there, and make sense of it for themselves.” A good teacher can guide in-class discussion about an interesting problem in such a way that children don't waste time following dead ends and get frustrated, she says. “They develop deeper insights and make connections among maths ideas and between those ideas and the ways they can be used.”

Engaging with more complicated problems can support critical mathematical thinking

Prof. Beswick is partnering with a team of national and international experts on an Australia Research Council (ARC) project DP220101015, 'Enabling students' critical mathematical thinking' , which will generate new insights into teaching practices that can promote or inhibit students’ development of critical mathematical thinking.

Introducing children to new mathematical concepts through more complicated problems – “the good stuff” – without so many broken down steps, rather than starting with easier problems and getting progressively more complex, is one possible approach, she says.

“Focusing only on the maths, separate from its applications, results in students thinking maths is irrelevant and, for too many, not something they want to pursue.”

You could teach or reinforce the necessary tools along the way, she says. “It means that students might spend a whole lesson on one problem or issue or maybe longer. But they will have learned [the concepts involved] in a much deeper way. Practicing skills is important but when students understand the relevant concepts less is needed.”

Children are then building on their understanding of maths beyond the utilitarian, she says. “It is about [supporting critical] thinking, not just crunching through processes – doing what a calculator can do – and I think that's what makes maths interesting,” she says.

“And that's what will inspire more kids to study maths for longer which would also help our teacher shortage. It would certainly give us a more mathematically capable citizenry – something that we desperately need.”

Beliefs around student capability can influence teachers’ approaches

Teachers’ beliefs around student capability also affects their approach to teaching, including their likelihood to teach in a way that fosters critical maths thinking, she says.

“People close doors to students … Too often they get classified rather than taught. The answer is to move them down a level rather than help them make up what they might have missed or explain things another way.”

Prof. Beswick grew up in a farming community in Tasmania in which not many students went on to university. She experienced firsthand the negative bias associated with teachers’ expectations as well as the positive impact of engaged teaching.

In senior secondary school, she elected to take the most demanding maths subject without the necessary pre-requisites. Her maths teacher worked with her for a lunchtime every week to help her understand the concepts that didn’t make sense to her.

“He was so patient with me … I would take a list of questions to him, and he would work through them all,” she says. “I remember the lesson where he explained the limit theorem in calculus. And he did it so well, it struck a chord with me. I just thought that is beautiful. I want to do maths forever.”

The experience changed her career trajectory and invoked a lifelong passion. And while not all maths has real-world relevance, teaching the subject should include the development of critical thinking.

“I’d be the first to say there is also value in learning pure maths,” she says. “Pure maths, like art or music, is a part of our cultural heritage – it can be a thing of beauty – and not everyone’s going to enjoy it or appreciate it, but they should be given the opportunity to access it as part of our culture. For most students, seeing the way maths can be used to help individual and societal decision-making will be what inspires them to study the subject.”

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Critical Thinking For Math

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Math Operations and Algebraic Thinking with Multiplication 4th Grade #tftnov

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math problems for critical thinking


Looking for multiplication, division, and estimation math activities to help your fourth-grade students get a deeper understanding of important operations and algebraic thinking concepts? These critical thinking error analysis math activities are just what you need to practice these tricky math concepts!

Your students will love using the agree and disagree cards to critique the work of others and defend their mathematical thinking!

Problem-solving tasks based on multiplication, division, estimation, and more!

Save BIG by purchasing the Grade 4 Error Analysis Bundle .

These mathematical problems reinforce students' reading, writing, and debating skills.

Included are 15 problems in 4 different formats. This means that the same 15 problems are presented on worksheets, Google Slides, task cards, and PowerPoint slides. Use all of one format, or mix it up to meet the needs of your students.

Also included are agree/disagree cards, as well as math discussion stems and questions to help students engage in meaningful discourse in whole group, small group, or partner settings focused around these problems.

Use as test prep, bell ringers, exit tickets, assessment , and learning activities during your math

This product includes both print and digital versions.

✓15 Operations and Algebraic Thinking Critiquing Error Analysis Word Problems in 4 Formats:

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  • Task Card Format
  • Whole Class PowerPoint Format (perfect to use as bell ringers)

✓Agree/Disagree Student Cards (2 sizes included)

✓Student Discussion Stems and Questions

✓Answer Keys

✓Teacher Suggestions

Suggested Classroom Use:

✓At home learning and distance learning

✓Math centers or stations

✓Small group work and partnership activities

✓Formal or informal assessments

✓Independent practice/Reinforcement

✓Homework or Classwork Review

✓Whole Class Bell Ringers/ Morning Work

Please view the preview for a closer look at all this product has to offer.

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math problems for critical thinking

Math Word Problems

Whole numbers & fractions • decimals & percents • mixed concepts: whole numbers to percents.

Grades: 4-10


The word problems in these books help students conquer the "dreaded" math word problem by teaching them how and when to apply the math operations they know to real-life situations. The developmentally sequenced problems in each book are arranged so they cannot be solved by rote processes. Each problem requires its own thinking/problem-solving approach rather than applying the same solution process to entire groups of problems. Teaching Support Includes answers, instructions at the start of each concept, and examples to reassure students about what is expected of them.

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  1. Weekly Critical-Thinking Math Word Problems by PBL Paradise

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  1. 20 Math Critical Thinking Questions

    March 15, 2023 Math critical thinking questions are essential for student growth and understanding. We all want our students to be able to understand the why behind what they're doing rather than just the process. Keep reading for math critical thinking questions that can be applied to any subject or topic!

  2. 20 Best Math Puzzles to Engage and Challenge Your Students

    4. Prodigy Prodigy is an engaging, game-based platform that turns math into an adventure! While it's not a math puzzle in the traditional sense, Prodigy uses many of the same principles to develop critical thinking skills and mathematical fluency. Students complete standards-aligned math questions to earn coins, collect pets and go on quests.

  3. Critical Thinking Math Problems: Examples and Activities

    Asking Questions To think critically is to follow a clear line of logical steps and reasoning. To solve critical thinking problems, math teachers should model the way they think when solving...

  4. Critical Thinking in Elementary Math

    October 26, 2023 kali9 / iStock Most of the math problems we present to elementary students are scripted. They might come from the curriculum we are teaching, or maybe they are a three-act math task we learned at a workshop or found in a blog.

  5. 6 Tips for Teaching Math Problem-Solving Skills

    Telling a student to reread the problem or to think about what tools or resources would help them solve it is a way to get them to try something new but not take over their thinking. These skills are also transferable across content, and students will be reminded, "Good readers and mathematicians reread.". 6.

  6. PDF Mathematical Teaching Strategies: Pathways to Critical Thinking ...

    Mathematical knowledge and the ability to solve quantifiable problems and utilize critical thinking skills enhance the abilities of students to think and make decisions. Analyzing, evaluating, reasoning and communicating knowledge and skills provides a pathway to new discoveries.

  7. How To Encourage Critical Thinking in Math

    By encouraging critical thinking in math, students learn to approach problems more thoughtfully, they learn to analyze and evaluate math concepts, identify patterns and relationships, and explore different strategies for finding the solution. Critical thinking also involves a great deal of persistence. Those are critical life skills!

  8. PDF 81 Fresh & Fun Critical-Thinking Activities

    1. verbal/linguistic 2. logical/mathematical 3. visual/spatial 4. bodily/kinesthetic 5. musical/rhythmic 6. interpersonal (the ability to work cooperatively in a group) 7. intrapersonal (self-identity) Research indicates that critical thinking is neither inborn nor naturally acquired.

  9. Mathematical Teaching Strategies: Pathways to Critical Thinking ...

    A teacher that emphasizes reasoning, logic and validity gives their students access to mathematics as an effective way of practicing critical thinking. All students have the ability to enhance and expand their critical thinking when learning mathematics. Students can develop this ability when confronting mathematical problems, identifying possible solutions and evaluating and justifying their ...

  10. Critical Thinking Math Problems & Activities

    1. A student who applies critical thinking to a problem involving a right triangle can _____. explain how to use the Pythagorean theorem to solve the problem input numbers into the formula...

  11. Rethinking Teaching Strategies in Math

    We look at strategies you can reset this year—adjusting your testing regimen, tackling math anxiety, encouraging critical thinking, and fostering a mistake-friendly environment. By Andrew Boryga August 16, 2023

  12. Promoting Independent Critical Thinking in Math

    Critical Thinking 5 Ways to Stop Thinking for Your Students Too often math students lean on teachers to think for them, but there are some simple ways to guide them to think for themselves. By Crystal Frommert December 8, 2022 martin-dm / iStock Who is doing the thinking in your classroom?

  13. Mastering Logic & Math Problem Solving

    Grades: 6-9 Critical Thinking, Mathematics Award Winner How can parents and teachers feel more confident teaching problem solving? How can we help students enjoy and master problem solving? After teaching problem solving for more than 35 years, the author walks students through easy-to-understand instruction and fun, engaging problems.

  14. 6 Strategies for Increasing Critical Thinking with Problem Solving

    You'll learn six strategies for increasing critical thinking through mathematical word problems, the importance of incorporating error analysis into your weekly routines, and several resources I use for improving critical thinking - almost all of which are free!

  15. Teaching Mathematical Reasoning

    Teaching Mathematical Reasoning: Critical Math Thinking Through Problem-Solving and Modeling What is mathematical reasoning? The short answer is that is that is reasoning with math, and in a sense, it's the skill that underlies all other math skills.

  16. Critical Thinking Math Problems Teaching Resources

    CRITICAL THINKING ACTIVITY: Math Magician Brain Teasers Problem Solving GATE. by. Barbara Evans. 4.9. (56) $7.29. PDF. These MATH MAGICIAN activities will challenge and delight your learners. Students will hone their problem solving skills with these puzzles and brain teasers as they exercise inductive, deductive, and lateral reasoning.

  17. Full article: Promoting critical thinking through mathematics and

    1 Introduction and background. Critical thinking has been considered a key twenty-first century competence by different frameworks (Voogt and Roblin Citation 2012) and by STEM educators (Jang Citation 2016).An education contributing to the development of twenty-first century competences requires, among other things, a reconsideration of instructional processes and a shift from teaching to know ...

  18. Mathematics Improves Your Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

    Mathematics provides a systematic and logical framework for problem-solving and critical thinking. The study of math helps to develop analytical skills, logical reasoning, and problem-solving abilities that can be applied to many areas of life.

  19. A Strategy for Teaching Math Word Problems

    A Math Word Problem Framework That Fosters Conceptual Thinking. This strategy for selecting and teaching word problems guides students to develop their understanding of math concepts. Word problems in mathematics are a powerful tool for helping students make sense of and reason with mathematical concepts. Many students, however, struggle with ...

  20. Mathematical Reasoning™ Series

    This book teaches and develops the math concepts and critical thinking skills necessary for success in Algebra I and future mathematics courses at the high school level. It was written with the premise that students cannot problem solve or take leaps of reasoning without understanding the concepts and elements that lead to discovery.

  21. Results for critical thinking math word problems

    The Weekly Critical Times are weekly worksheets featuring popular Math critical thinking problems written as newspaper articles to give students depth, meaning and real world application. These arti. Subjects: Critical Thinking, Math, Word Problems. Grades: 6 th - 9 th. Types: Worksheets, Printables, Centers. $5.00.

  22. Critical mathematical thinking skills create more engaged citizens

    Engaging with more complicated problems can support critical mathematical thinking Prof. Beswick is partnering with a team of national and international experts on an Australia Research Council (ARC) project DP220101015, 'Enabling students' critical mathematical thinking' , which will generate new insights into teaching practices that can ...

  23. Critical Thinking For Math Worksheets

    Displaying top 8 worksheets found for - Critical Thinking For Math. Some of the worksheets for this concept are 81 fresh fun critical thinking activities, The critical thinking, Problem solving and critical thinking, Critical thinking nursing calculations part 2, Lesson problem solving and critical thinking, Critical thinkingproblem solving, The test of critical thinking, Critical thinking ...

  24. Math Operations and Algebraic Thinking with Multiplication 4th ...

    CCSS 4.OA.A.1. Interpret a multiplication equation as a comparison, e.g., interpret 35 = 5 × 7 as a statement that 35 is 5 times as many as 7 and 7 times as many as 5. Represent verbal statements of multiplicative comparisons as multiplication equations. CCSS 4.OA.A.2.

  25. Math Word Problems Series

    Mathematics The word problems in these books help students conquer the "dreaded" math word problem by teaching them how and when to apply the math operations they know to real-life situations. The developmentally sequenced problems in each book are arranged so they cannot be solved by rote processes.