My starting point is a diagnosis I found in David Perkins’ book “Outsmarting IQ: The emerging
science of learnable intelligence”. Perkins reports some of the findings of mathematician-
psychologist Allan Schoenfeld (p. 87):
“One of the most important factors [in deficient mathematical problem solving is] poor
- Students did not pay attention to the winding path of their activities in solving a
- They often did not think to use heuristics they knew and could have applied.
- They often perseverated in an approach that was not yielding progress rather than
trying a new tack.
- They often gave up without rummaging in their repertoire for another point of entry.
- Amidst the trees, they lost sight of the forest.”
One promising way of mastering these difficulties lies in combining two major approaches to
- heuristics in the tradition of Polya, and
- mapping techniques, like mind mapping (or concept mapping).
Excursus: Mind mapping.
(You may want to skip this if you are familiar with mind maps.)
Mind mapping is a special form of note-taking.
Here are some essential features:
- You take a (preferably large) sheet of paper in landscape format.
- You write the topic / the problem in the middle of the sheet and draw a frame around
- You write the main aspects and main ideas around that central topic and link them
through lines to the center.
- You expand the ideas in these quot;main branchesquot; into subbranches etc.
- Wherever appropriate, you should use figures, colours, arrows to link branches etc.
A thorough discussion of mind mapping can be found in “The Mind Map Book” by Tony and
Barry Buzan. Later in the text we present a number of mind maps.
How can mind maps be used for solving math
I will start with two principal uses:
- Using mind maps to examine a given problem.
- Using mind maps to organize problem solving tools.
These two uses may even be combined, leading to the use of two mindmaps at a time:
- a quot;problem mapquot; for dealing with the problem itself and
- a quot;tool mapquot; (or several of them) containing problem solving tools - from general ones
(e.g. the ones presented in Polya's quot;How to Solve Itquot;) to highly specialized ones (e.g.
for dealing with Poisson processes).
On the following page you find a sample problem map. The problem is very easy, but the
sample should show the flavour of the method.
The key difficulty in using mind mapping for mathematical problem solving is to combine
conventional mind map layout with ordinary (and often lengthy) computations, because the
latter simply don’t fit well into the mind map layout.
After some experiments, I have found a way that works fine for me (and which can certainly
be modified in a number of ways):
- I use the upper third of the sheet for the problem map.
- The two lower thirds are tiled in boxes and are used for computations and working out
details. The middle line is a simple convenience.
- The result is a hybrid form of notetaking, combining mind maps and more
- The computations and details can be referenced in the problem map by numbers, if
- In this way, I can use the problem map for collecting ideas and for directing and
“supervising” the detail work.
The use of boxes was inspired by an article “Stop Making Stupid Mistakes” by R. Rusczyk on
It should be clear that problem maps are intended for finding a solution, not presenting one.
Here comes the problem map sample.
The problem map deals with the following
Show that there are infinitely many positive integers which are not the sum of a square and a
This exercise is taken from Arthur Engel’s book “Problem-Solving Strategies” (p. 133, no. 63
Here are some advantages of the hybrid layout:
- Due to the map’s layout, it’s easy to collect ideas and group them. Further ideas can
later be added at appropriate places in the map.
- The problem map helps you not to lose sight of the overall picture.
- If you are stuck, the problem map can help you to bring structure into your thoughts.
- It's easy to keep track of several aspects or approaches, of aims and sub-aims etc.
- Using words, mathematical terms and figures in the problem map and in the boxes
allows you to exploit the advantages of each of these three representations.
- The ideas and chains of thought documented in the problem map and the boxes can
- Mind mapping itself is easy to learn and fun to use.
Some ideas on possible variations:
- Use larger sheets for more complex problems (A3 instead of A4).
- Use separate sheets for problem map and conventional math notes.
- Begin with conventional math notes and start the problem map as soon as you run
- Change details of layout (e.g. use more space for the problem map, place the theme
of your problem map at the left margin rather than at the center …)
- If reasonable, use auxiliary mind maps in the boxes.
The basic idea in using tool maps is to collect and structure problem solving tools in mind
The tool maps can be organized along several concepts, like:
- Stages of problem solving, e.g. Polya's scheme from quot;How to Solve Itquot;:
- quot;understanding the problemquot;
- quot;devising a planquot;
- quot;carrying out the planquot;
- quot;looking backquot;.
- Standard situations in problem solving, e.g.
- quot;looking for new approachesquot;
- quot;overcoming frustrationquot;
- quot;need for informationquot;
- quot;my most frequent errors in problem solvingquot;.
- Mathematical objects involved, e.g.
- polynomes or
Here comes a brief discussion of tool maps.
We start with its advantages:
- Most important: In constructing and improving your own tool maps, you learn a lot
about problem solving and especially your personal problem solving behaviour.
- Tools maps act as reminders for techniques you might otherwise have overlooked.
- Tool maps can help novices with adopting new working heuristics.
- Tool maps are very flexible and can be adapted to all sorts of experience, needs and
- Due to their graphical representation and their structure, tool maps are easier to scan
and to expand than conventional catalogues or lists.
- Tool maps may help to share problem solving techniques in a group by making
quot;implicitquot; problem solving techniques quot;explicitquot;.
Here are some disadvantages:
- Sometimes tool maps may become messy and overloaded and need redrawing.
- To use tool maps consistently, it's essential that the tool maps are easily accessible,
(e.g. as a poster at the working place, or as a handy folder).
On the following pages you find a number of sample tool maps that can be used in solving
For reasons of clarity, I have done these maps with mind mapping software rather than by
hand. I have used a non-standard mind map layout (portrait format rather than landscape
format) due to the layout of this letter.
Here are some details.
This map describes some key procedures for mathematical problem solving using mind
The stages are of course quotes from Polya’s “How to Solve It”.
This map is of limited practical use and mainly included as a kind of overview.
Tool maps for some of the topics mentioned will be presented later.
Understanding the problem
Devising a plan
Carrying out the plan
Dealing with obstacles Looking back
Basic Collect ideas
Heuristic in problem map Use tool maps
Choose most promising idea
Processes from the problem map
Work out details in boxes
in the problem map
“Understanding the problem”:
The material for the following two maps is taken from a number of standard sources, like
Polya, Arthur Engel’s “Problem-Solving Strategies” or Paul Zeitz’ “The Art and Craft of
Read the problem carefully
Draw a figure
Introduce suitable notation
Collect initial ideas
Draw a figure
Geometric Use different
of the problem Algebraic Use Integer
Collect Examine special cases
material Use tables
Use tree diagrams
”Devising a planquot;:
Modify... ... data
... the unknown
Possible last step
Backward of the proof?
Possible penultimate step?
Extremes Look at extreme
principles Symmetry Look for symmetries
in the problem
Look for invariants
What would be nice?
Can you force it to be nice?
Mathematical tools Objects Series
Look at quot;Math Creativityquot;
I have used a map like the following one when I was working on the exercises from the
chapter on Number Theory in Arthur Engel's book quot;Problem-Solving Strategiesquot;.
First I assembled the tools mentioned in the chapter (which took only a short time), and later,
after having worked on some of the problems, added further tools that seemed important to
Unfortunately, the mind mapping software I use is not yet up to math symbols.
a^n - b^n
= (a-b) * (a^(n-1) + ... + b^(n-1))
For all n
a^n + b^n
Identities = (a+b)*(a^(n-1) - ... +- b^(n-1))
For odd n
a^4 + 4b^4 = (a^2+2b^2)^2 - (2ab)^2
Look at cases
Look at Chinese Remainder
Divisibility remainders Theorem
Look at products n
of primes = p_1^n_^1 * p_2^n_2 * ... p_r^n_r
Number Primes Converse invalid!
Theory Little Fermat
Multiply with one
Miscellaneous Triangular numbers
Look at last digits
Look at digit sums
This map is rather experimental and adapts a number of classical creativity techniques, like
morphological analysis, bisociation or Osborn's checklist.
Many of these techniques have been developed in an engineering context. I found it
stimulating to apply some concepts to mathematics.
My main inspiration for this map was the book “101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques” by
James M. Higgins.
(Use of this map is perhaps appropriate if standard methods have failed. I haven’t yet found
the time to gather much experience in using ideas from this map.)
Take a relevant object
from the object list
Take an operation from
Basic idea the operations list
Apply the operation to the object. Play
around (e.g. using the problem map).
See if you come up with useful ideas.
Mathematical objects e.g. sets, numbers, series, matrices ...
Properties e.g. prime, differentiable, finite ...
Mathematical tools e.g. strategies, tactics, technical tools ...
Representation of the problem
Starting point of analysis
Constants vs. variables
Add / remove
Operations Swap / replace / substitute
Maximize / minimize
View with a microscope /
Divide / combine
Invert / inside out / upside down
The tool maps can be of use especially in the following situations:
- You are stuck and need some new ideas:
Consult the tool maps and look for new approaches.
- You are a novice and want to learn some new problem solving techniques:
Use tool maps as a kind of quot;recipe bookquot;.
- You want to make sure that you do not overlook some important aspects in dealing
with your problem:
Use tool maps as checklists.
It is expressly NOT suggested to use the tool maps in every stage of problem solving.
Combining Problem Maps and Tool Maps
Problem maps and tool maps are two modules that can be used separately.
However, using them in combination may lead to a number of interesting problem solving
practices. Here are some ideas.
For me, the following process works well:
- I start with collecting seminal ideas in the problem map. At this initial stage, I make
use of the tool maps.
- Intuitively I chose the most promising approach and work out the details in the boxes.
Usually, this involves looking at special or extreme cases or drawing a picture or
finding another appropriate representation of the problem.
- If none of the ideas collected before leads to a solution, I use the tool maps again and
look for further approaches. I can now use the information I have collected up to this
- I describe and analyze obstacles in the problem map and try to develop new
approaches using this information.
- When finishing work on a problem, I ask myself why or why not I have found a
solution and what steps were crucial.
If necessary, I add new tools to the tool maps.
Although the process of using problem maps may seem rather formal, there is much room for
intuition and gut feeling.
Response to Criticism
I have discussed the concepts of problem maps and tool maps with several people.
I would like to comment on some of the initial criticism.
“The process of using maps is too formal.”
I have tried to describe a flexible process – you can change between two types of notetaking.
A new versatile tool, mind mapping, has been added to your belt, which you can use in some
situations and ignore in others. As just mentioned, there is plenty of room for intuitive
“The process impairs creativity.”
This may be right if it is used in a dull routine, e.g. mechanically consulting the tool maps at
every stage, or slavishly documenting every idea in the problem map. No one is advocating
But when you’re inexperienced or you are stuck, tool maps may offer valuable inspiration and
problem maps may help to organize your ideas.
“The process is too inefficient and time-consuming.”
My own experiences are: With some (rather straightforward) problems, mind mapping has
indeed been an unnecessary effort. With others, mind mapping has speeded up finding a
solution. And solutions to some problems I probably wouldn’t have found at all without mind
“Mind mapping is too difficult or too time-consuming to learn.”
I do not have enough teaching experience, but in my opinion learning how to mind map is a
picnic in comparison with solving math problems.
“Tool maps don’t work.”
This argument says that a mere tool name in a map won’t help - which is certainly true: You
must know how to USE the items in a tool map. This, of course, has to be learned.
But as reminders, recipe books, checklists and sources of inspiration, tool maps are very
“The strict hierarchical structure of tool maps doesn’t mirror the much closer interconnections
This is true, but the hierarchical structure is an easy and practical way of dealing with large
amounts of tools. Grouping the tools and retrieving them is made easy by this hierarchy.
Moreover, tools can appear more than once in the tool maps, thus making it easier to find
I am most interested in the following points:
- It should be clear from the above description that a separation ought to be made
between the general framework of problem maps and tool maps on one hand and the
specific tools and their arrangement on the other hand.
Which suggestions do you have for any of these areas?
- The success of combining mind mapping and mathematical problem solving relates
to a number of questions: How experienced are users in using mind maps and in
solving mathematical problems? How complex are the problems at hand? -
Which suggestions do have on these points?
- What are in your opinion the shortcomings of the main concepts?
- Which suggestions for improvement do you have?
- From your experience, which practices in solving math problems work best?
Even very short remarks on these points are of great value to me.