What is a "Problem-Based" Curriculum?

In a problem-based curriculum, students work on carefully crafted and sequenced mathematics problems during most of the instructional time. Teachers help students understand the problems and guide discussions to be sure that the mathematical takeaways are clear to all. Not all mathematical knowledge can be discovered, so direct instruction is sometimes appropriate. On the other hand, some concepts and procedures follow from definitions and prior knowledge and students can, with appropriately constructed problems, see this for themselves. In the process, they explain their ideas and reasoning and learn to communicate mathematical ideas. The goal is to give students just enough background and tools to solve initial problems successfully, and then set them to increasingly sophisticated problems as their expertise increases.

A problem-based approach may require a significant realignment of the way math class is understood by all stakeholders in a student's education. Families, students, teachers, and administrators may need support making this shift. These materials are designed to support professional learning that is undertaken by teachers either in professional learning communities at their schools or in more formal settings. The value of a problem-based approach is that students spend most of their time in math class doing mathematics: making sense of problems, estimating, trying different approaches, selecting and using appropriate tools, evaluating the reasonableness of their answers, interpreting the significance of their answers, noticing patterns and making generalizations, explaining their reasoning verbally and in writing, listening to the reasoning of others, and building their understanding. Mathematics is not a spectator sport.