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Problem Introduction Protocol (Updated)

About 5 years ago, several educators and ALN facilitators developed a Problem Introduction Protocol. We wanted to create a way in which we could introduce problems during the Main Lesson that would provide access to all students.  We’ve had a few years to collect evidence of the effectiveness of its use. It’s time for an update.

We’ve found the ALN Problem Introduction Protocol to be a very useful tool in a teacher’s toolbox.  As teachers used the protocol frequently and routinely during the introduction to a Main Lesson task, students began to anticipate the steps and began to initiate them without prompting.  Our anecdotal observations captured more and more students began to feel comfortable getting started and trying out ideas shared during the protocol.  There were fewer instances of “I don’t know what to do.” from students.

Students were no longer being asked to underline or highlight “important” words.  Instead they were engaged in making sense of the problem through some scripted steps.  We know that when students only focus on some parts of the problem, they lose sight of what the story is about and perform an operation with the numbers which may not make sense. The main goal of ALN’s Problem Introduction Protocol is to support all learners making sense of the problem.

We also realized there were some important changes and ideas that needed to be addressed based on our collective experiences with the ALN Problem Introduction Protocol over these few years.  One of the first changes and updates to our ALN Problem Introduction Protocol is the addition of a new step, which “allows students to build a shared understanding around the context of the problem.”  We felt the need  to clarify any misconceptions around language or unfamiliar contexts so that all learners have a common understanding of the terminology and to support readability, especially for students who are learning English as an additional language. So now we encourage teachers to “Ask, “Are there any words you don’t know? Are there any words that might be tricky for someone?” right after we read the problem with students.

We also realized that there are many ways to develop a positive problem solving culture and what we call “patient problem solvers”.  We want to provide opportunities to all students to make sense of problems and to feel confident about offering solutions based on their understanding.  So in addition to our ALN Problem Introduction Protocol we offer suggestions to create tasks which encourage all students to make sense first before they think about the numbers in the task.  Please see p. 2 with Additional Strategies for Introducing Math Problems.

Here is a reminder of the Problem Introduction Protocol steps:

  • Read the problem two times. First the teacher reads the problem, and then the students and teacher read chorally. 

All students and the teacher read the problem together. Reading the problem together supports all learners, especially those who have difficulty reading the problem or those students whose first language is not English. This step can be repeated to ensure that all students have heard the problem.

  • Ask, “Are there any words you don’t know? Are there any words that might be tricky for someone?”

This allows students to build a shared understanding around the context of the problem. This is a chance to clarify any misconceptions around language or unfamiliar contexts so that all learners have a common understanding of the terminology.

  • Ask, “What are we trying to figure out?” 

Following a class discussion where students make sense of the problem, teachers record the answer to the question, “What are we trying to figure out?”. Students can write or copy the statement on their papers. 

The goal of this step is that every student can say, “I am trying to figure out _____.”

  • Ask, “What would an answer to that look like?” 

The teacher listens for the correct unit and reasonable answers. If those are not given then the teacher will ask direct questions “What is the unit (label) for your answer?” “What would a reasonable answer be?” “What would be an unreasonable answer?”

  • Brainstorm strategies 

“How could you solve this problem?” “What strategy could you use?” The teacher is listening for strategies and models and asks direct questions if needed. Students share strategies that can be used to solve the problem. These strategies are all recorded and not evaluated. The teacher restates each strategy while writing them on the board. This list can be referenced if any student is having difficulty getting started. (Remember: Do Not Narrow the list of strategies. This step may identify students you’d like to check in with during work time to ask questions.)