Operation Maths: A Unique Approach to Problem-Solving

Operation Maths: A Unique Approach to Problem-Solving

In this post, we will look specifically at the Operation Maths approach to problem-solving in the senior end books (3rd to 6th classes). In a subsequent post, we will look at how this approach develops in the junior end books (infants to second classes).

Presenting children with an abundance of mathematical problems does not automatically transform them into competent and confident problem-solvers. Rather, the children must be explicitly taught a range of problem-solving
strategies and they must be facilitated in applying and practising the strategies repeatedly in a range of different contexts.
Operation Maths has an integral multilayered approach to problem-solving throughout the 3rd to 6th class books:

  • A variety of key problem-solving strategies is introduced, explored and applied to various real-life contexts in a developmental and spiral way through the classes (i.e. bar model drawing, empty number lines, T-charts , branching etc)
  • Regular Work It Out! sections throughout the chapters in the pupils books provide the children with opportunities to apply and hone their problem-solving skills.
  • Let’s Investigate! sections at the end of the Pupils’ Books where the focus is on open-ended problems
  • Thematic revision spreads with a strong problem-solving focus.
  • Extra problem-solving in Early Finisher photocopiables.

All of this happens as part of a larger problem-solving approach based on the acronym RUCSAC. This approach, which can be used as a whole school problem-solving approach, is also reinforced and explained for both children and parents on a convenient French flap/bookmark on the Discovery Book (see images from flaps below), which encourages the children to use RUCSAC as an aid when problem-solving.

Problem-solving skills

The ability to reason mathematically is fundamental to being able to solve mathematical problems. However, reasoning mathematically requires not just one, but a number of mathematical skills e.g. being able to
• Work through a problem in a systematic way
• Predict an answer
• Identify the relevant information and understand what type of answer is being sought
• Visualise the problem mentally or being able to represent the components of the problem in either a pictorial or abstract (using only numbers and symbols) way.
• Plan or decide what approach to take
• Work to get an answer
• Check that the answer is suitable and accurate.

What is fundamentally different about the Operation Maths approach to problem solving is that the children are being taught specific strategies to develop the aforementioned skills, in a spiral and progressive way, in order to equip the children with the necessary skills for them to become capable and confident problem-solvers.

Central to the Operation Math approach to problem solving is RUCSAC. This clear, sequential approach enables the children to work through problems in a systematic way, while simultaneously utilising the mathematical skills that are being developed with and throughout the chapters.


RUCSAC and the Specific Strategies taught in Operation Maths

RUCSAC is an acronym, where each letter represents one of the six distinct phases of this problem-solving approach (see below). However, this more than just a clever mnemonic, as each of these phases is supported by the development of specific strategies throughout the programme, which support this approach.  These specific strategies are as follows:

Read – Estimation strategies:

  • Reasonable answer: Would you predict a bigger or smaller answer? How many digits would you expect in the answer
  • Front-end estimation: Look at the digits at the front of the numbers
  • Rounding: Round each number to the place of the highest value digit e.g. tens, hundreds, thousands.
  • Rounding to fives: (only in OM6): Usually we round to the nearest tenth, unit, ten, etc. But if the number(s) involved are approximately in the middle, it is more efficient to round them to the nearest five tenths, 5, 50 etc. to get a more accurate estimate. (OM6, Pupils Book p 30)

Underline – Colour coding operational vocabulary:

  • Identifying specific phrases, colour coding them, and recording them on in the Discovery Book. This forces the child to engage with the language of problems and to decode them. However, this only suits word problems which contain obvious operational vocabulary or that which can be easily inferred.

Create – Creating visual representation to show the information in the problem, as part of a CPA approach:

  • Using concrete materials (e.g. counters, cubes, children etc.)
  • Using bar model drawings
  • Using empty number lines
  • Using T-charts (OM4 to OM6)
  • Making/completing a table, grid, list etc.
  • Creating number sentences (and/or equations with variables in OM6)

Select – Selecting a suitable and efficient approach:

  • Using a mental method, e.g. petitioning, sequencing, compensating etc.
  • Using a written method e.g. a formal algorithm, jottings, branching
  • Using guess and test

Answer – Answering the question:

  • The teaching panels demonstrate how to layout and position work clearly and sequentially
  • Children are encouraged to “show your thinking”

Check – Checking answer(s):

  • Comparing the answer to the estimate, e.g. does it look reasonable?
  • Using the inverse to check.

Furthermore, as part of this approach, specific visual strategies are introduced and repeatedly used where appropriate:

  • Empty Number lines
  • Bar Models
  • T-charts


Empty Number Line (ENL)

Simply, a horizontal line, initially with no numbers or markings that helps develop a child’s number sense, their ability to visualise numbers and to compute mentally.
Also known as a blank or open number line, empty number lines can be used to show elapsed time, operations, skip counting, fractions, decimals, measures, money (making change) and much more (see image below).

While, strictly speaking the number line should initially start empty (i.e. no numbers or markings), in Operation Maths, some of the required numbers and/or markings have been provided, to act as scaffolding for the child. Ultimately, it in envisaged, that as the child grows more confident of this structure, he/she should be able to construct an empty number line from scratch in order to help solve other problems. I is also hope that through using this structure the child would be able to develop this ability to visualise numbers in such a way and, in doing so, enhance their ability to compute mentally.

Bar Models

These are simply drawing(s) that resemble bars, (like that seen in bar graphs), that are used to illustrate number relationships. There are two main types, part-whole bar models and comparison bar models.

Part-whole model:
which can represent a whole amount that is subdivided into smaller parts. In Operation Maths these are used to represent:

  • Addition/subtraction: where a whole amount has been subdivided into two or three amounts/parts and either the value of one of the parts or the whole/total is required
  • Multiplication/division: where a whole amount has been subdivided into equal amounts/parts and either the value of one/some of the parts or the whole amount is required
  • Fractions, ratios, decimals and percentages: Where a whole amount has been subdivided into equal amounts/parts and either the value of one/some of the parts or the whole amount is unknown.

Comparison models:  which are used when comparing two or more quantities. In Operation Maths these can be used to represent:

  • Addition/subtraction and Multiplication/division: where two amounts are being compared and the value of one of the amounts or the difference between the amounts or the total value of the amounts is being sought.
  • Fractions, ratios, decimals and percentages: Where two or three amounts are being compared and the value of some of the amounts, the difference between the amounts or the total is unknown. This can also be a very effective way to calculate selling price and cost price when given percentage profit/loss



A T-chart is simply a table, usually divided into two columns, giving it a T-shape. They can be used as a means to aid calculations and/or to identify patterns and connections within problems .

Other strategies

Other strategies used in Operation Maths which promote the visualising and decoding of problems include:
• Using number bonds and branching
• Making lists
• Using “guess and test” (also known as Trial & Error)
• Using the process of elimination (e.g. logic problems)