The art of problem-solving through heuristics

By Herman M. Lagon

THE EDUCATIONAL landscape is evolving rapidly in our swiftly changing world, and mathematics stands at the forefront of this transformative journey. The era of rote memorization and rigid formulas has faded into the past, creating a contemporary approach to mathematical education. This modern methodology equips students with the ability to navigate intricate problem-solving scenarios, fostering confidence and creativity. At the heart of this transformative shift lie heuristics–a dynamic set of strategies designed to tackle complex mathematical word problems.

Traditionally, mathematics has posed a formidable challenge, often overwhelming students and parents. However, as we step into this new era of learning, it becomes evident that navigating the world of mathematics relies not solely on memorization but on understanding, adaptability, and strategic thinking. The emergence of Singapore Math Heuristics, a pioneering approach gaining ground in the Philippines, serves as a shining example of this paradigm shift. This approach empowers students to decipher intricate math puzzles by nurturing problem-solving skills.

But what precisely are these elusive heuristics? Initially, the term might spark confusion, particularly among primary school students and their parents. To demystify, heuristics can be briefly described as problem-solving strategies that enable students to untangle intricate word problems. The brilliance of heuristics lies in their versatility—different problems can be approached using various strategies, often in combination.

These heuristics have been categorized into four main groups within the Singapore Math curriculum: representation, calculated guess, process-oriented, and problem transformation. These categories encompass twelve distinct heuristics, each providing students with tools to confront the most challenging math word problems.

Under the “representation” category, “Draw a diagram/model” visually represents information or relationships, “Draw a table” organizes information systematically for analysis, and “Make a systematic list” generates possible solutions methodically. For the “calculated guess” approach, “Look for pattern(s)” identifies recurring patterns, “Guess and check” involves educated guesses followed by testing, and “Make suppositions” entails making assumptions and exploring their implications.

The “process-oriented” heuristics include “Act it out,” which involves tangible problem simulation, “Work backwards” which involves reasoning from the solution backward, and “Use before-after concept,” which entails comparing before and after situations. Lastly, the “problem transformation” strategies encompass “Restate the problem in another way” for improved comprehension, “Simplify the problem” by utilizing known concepts to reduce complexity, and “Solve part of the problem” by breaking it down into manageable segments. Each of these heuristics is a versatile tool in the problem-solving toolkit.

Central to this methodology is George Polya’s four-step problem-solving process: understanding the problem, devising a plan, executing the plan, and reflecting on the solution. These steps serve as a guiding compass for students, enabling them to navigate complex mathematical landscapes with clarity and confidence. Through adherence to this process, students cultivate a habit of structured thinking that extends beyond math problems, enhancing their analytical and critical thinking skills across diverse domains.

In the context of the Philippines, where education holds great value and the pursuit of excellence is woven into our cultural fabric, math heuristics offer a priceless approach to learning. Much like the emphasis on reflection and discernment, heuristics drive students to contemplate mathematical problems, identify suitable strategies, and adapt techniques as they navigate a spectrum of problem-solving scenarios.

The allure of math heuristics lies not only in its effectiveness but also in its accessibility to all learners. These diverse strategies cater to various learning styles, ensuring each student can identify an approach that resonates with them. This inclusivity, coupled with the philosophy of meeting individuals where they are (context), fosters a teaching-learning environment conducive to growth and development.

As we embrace the transformation of mathematics education, adopting heuristics underscores our commitment to nurturing well-rounded individuals equipped to thrive in an ever-evolving world. In the Philippines, where education holds immense value and the pursuit of intellectual growth is revered, integrating math heuristics, particularly the Singaporean approach, into our classrooms is a significant stride towards empowering the next generation of problem solvers, critical thinkers, and adaptable leaders amid the 4th Industrial Revolution. These individuals, grounded in strong principles, are poised to confidently and gracefully tackle the complexities of our world.


Doc H fondly describes himself as a ‘student of and for life’ who, like many others, aspires to a life-giving and why-driven world that is grounded in social justice and the pursuit of happiness. His views herewith do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions he is employed or connected with.