PD Module 2: Tackling unstructured problems

Author: The University of Nottingham

In the classroom, most tasks are highly structured, and students are told which techniques to deploy. By contrast, in real-world problems people often need to make simplifications, construct models, choose an approach, and evaluate outcomes by their own criteria. If students are to learn for life, they will need opportunities to work on less structured problems in their classrooms. This professional development module supports teachers to present classroom problems in a less structured fashion.

Potential for PD

In this module, teachers will be encouraged to reconsider the way they pose problems and assignments, and how to deal with problems they might encounter. When students are given unstructured problems, some are confident and work with little support, while others are afraid to start. How can the teacher decide when to intervene and when to stand back? How does the teacher develop more autonomy? What kinds of questions will help?

This CPD resouce is designed to be used by small groups of teachers working independently of an ‘expert’ or by a teacher working on his or her own. It has been used in both pre service education and with practicing teachers.
An additional module focuses on designing IBL tasks for various learner levels and abilities.


The basic structure of the module is that, first, teachers will observe successful classroom practices, and teachers discussing the issues they encounter on video. Next, they will create more open versions of the assignments they use, they will try out these materials in their own classrooms, and get feedback on that.

Concrete examples being addressed in this module include:

  • Studying different versions of a table tennis tournament and a BMI task
  • Video clips that show students working with the unstructured versions of the table tennis tournament

Doing the module with teachers will take two sessions: a first session of about 2 hours, a week in between for the teachers to try out in their own classroom, and another half hour or so in a second session. This second session could also be the starting session for the next module "Learning concepts through IBL” in this series of seven modules.

Processes of inquiry

The inquiry processes in this module are structured according to a modeling cycle. The major inquiry processes addressed in this module are:

  • Simplifying and representing the situation
  • Analyzing and solving the model they’ve made
  • Interpreting and evaluating the results
  • Communicating and reflecting on the findings


  • Download: PD Module Guide Pdf / Doc
  • Download: Teacher Handouts Pdf / Doc

Classroom video for activity D: 1.Organising a table tennis tournament

Supplementary materials

Install the software applets

These pages require a web browser with Javascript and Adobe Flash Player 9 or newer to use the video and software.
The software applets can be browsed as part of each module. If you want to install them separately on students' machines you can download the set (and more) as a Windows installer or as Mac applications. Alternatively, they are availavble in browser-based format for any system that supports Flash.


This module has been compiled for PRIMAS from professional development materials developed by the Shell Centre team at the Centre for Research in Mathematics Education, University of Nottingham. Many of these materials were originally written for the Bowland Maths project, funded by the Bowland Charitable Trust, or for the Improving Learning in Mathematics project which was funded by the Department for Education and Skills Standards Unit.

Last change: 6 juni 2013
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