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Broadbent Maths - creative primary maths

Maths mysteries - encouraging thinking skills and group problem solving

Wednesday, 17 June 2015
Reasoning and problem solving are two of the three main aims of the maths NC and, with that in mind, maths mysteries are one of my favourite reasoning activities out there. I have had some enjoyable visits to schools, watching children working collaboratively to solve a problem from information and clues presented on individual cards. 

Children need to be given time to explore, think and persist at solving a problem and then have a chance to reflect on their learning. For this to happen they must be motivated to overcome challenges and develop as creative problem-solvers. Opportunities should be given to children to get stuck, follow different routes and not to feel threatened or undermined if they make mistakes.

It is really interesting to watch the approaches different children take. Those that have the most success almost ‘live the problem’, picturing it and imagining the scenario as the clues are read out. Others that do well draw sketches, diagrams or tables to make sense of it or use cubes, counters or whatever to model the problems. It shows the importance of providing models and images for children to choose from and use to help make sense of problems.  Provide prompts for children that struggle. You will see them getting nowhere by simply reading and re-reading the clues in the hope that they can just solve it mentally with the answer magically appearing to them. 

This is the funfair backdrop with the problem on the pink card and the six white clue cards.
Putting the problems and investigations into a context really helps the children get into them and they are not too difficult to make up yourself. You can try this pirate mystery, it's taken from my Mystery Worlds packs but this is the original before they were published on cards. I've reproduced it as a file for you to download, print, laminate and use with your class.

I’ve used it with Y3/4 classes but it would be suitable for any KS2 class - just think about the models, images and strategies that the children may use to solve it. I would recommend that you give it a try yourself, with a group of other teachers or your family at home. It will help you appreciate the journey your pupils might take - always a valuable perspective to have.
Download this Pirate Mystery to use with your class.

I managed to get this hat from a party shop, any props like this helps to set the context.
pirate hat
Mystery Worlds packs are sets of contextual mysteries with ready-made clue cards that I designed to encourage group problem-solving and mathematical thinking.

Each set has three backdrop scenes and four sets of mystery cards for each backdrop, each with six clue cards. A bank of problems and investigations, all linked to the overall theme, are also set out on each backdrop.

There is a set for year Y2, Y3, Y4, Y5 and Y6 with 12 main mysteries - enough for two every half term.

These are some of the resources I have written alongside the Table Top Maths Games and Football Maths Games.

Related articles:

Maths with a space theme
Download this space themed mystery

A little sporting logic
Download this sports thememd mystery


A firm favourite for free high quality problem solving activities is NRICH, part of the Millennium Mathematics Project, based in Cambridge. 
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