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The world for which we are preparing today’s students will be filled with problems that are complex, not well-defined, and unlikely to lend themselves to a single, simple solution. They will require creative and novel approaches. In fact, the success of our students will likely depend more on their ability to engage with problems of this nature than their ability to recount facts, follow directions, or apply established processes and procedures.

Unfortunately, problem-solving skills do not often develop naturally, especially when challenges cannot be solved by traditional, single-path, multi-step strategies. We need to be intentional and strategic in our efforts to introduce, nurture, and hone problem-solving skills and strategies with our students. Here are six strategies we can employ to help our students develop the attitudes, skills, and flexibility necessary to be effectives independent problem solvers.

We can start by presenting problems worth solving. For some students, the presence of a problem alone is enough incentive to search for a solution. However, for most students to fully invest their time and mental energy requires a problem that is relevant to them, interesting enough to pursue, and challenging enough to be worthwhile. Just because a skill or concept is in the formal curriculum does not make it compelling to learners. We may need to find another entry point, a positioning strategy, or presentation frame that meets one or more of these criteria. Creating a scenario, sharing an experience, devising a dilemma, or contextualizing the problem in their life experiences are good places to start.

We do well to prioritize understanding over finding the “correct” answer. Correct answers are only as good as the understanding that supports them. Understanding and insight make solving the next and other future problems less scary and more likely to lead to success. We can support students to reflect on the path they took, recount and name the strategies they tried, describe what worked, and detail what they learned from the process.

We need to give students space to struggle. Of course, we need to limit the amount of time and struggle according to the maturity, commitment, and skill level of our students. We also need to provide appropriate scaffolding for students who may need additional support. Meanwhile, our feedback and coaching are better focused on effort, strategy, and use of resources than on a student’s perceived or innate ability.

We can teach students to “grapple” with problems. Grappling implies trying different approaches, looking for leverage, and finding promising next steps over simply persisting and repeatedly trying the same approach. We can encourage students to look for patterns and hints that suggest something new they can try, and we can teach them to not fear struggle by demystifying challenges and even failure. Additionally, we can—and should—coach them to see problems as opportunities to learn and grow. Our goal is for students to see solving problems as a sign that they are building valuable tools and strategies, which in turn would help grow their confidence.

We need to lead with questions rather than just provide answers. We might ask questions such as “What have you tried?”, “What have you noticed that might be familiar?”, “What might be the significance of…?”, or “How else might you look at/approach the problem?” Providing answers, especially early in the problem-solving process, can remove the challenge and deprive students of their ownership of the solution.

Finally, we need to honor and value the role of mistakes and missteps. When efforts fall short, we can ask questions like “What did you observe that might be useful?”, “Is there a partial answer in what you tried on which you can build?”, or “What still seems to be missing?” Mistakes and missteps are crucial elements in discovery and solution-building. We need to be careful to avoid undermining this element through the feedback we offer and the grades we assign.

The challenge of solving problems without direct adult guidance and direction can be a new and unsettling experience for many students. Our patience, wisdom, and encouragement may be the support they need to trust themselves enough to persist and prevail.

Thought for the Week

When we understand another person’s perspective, what they are thinking and feeling, we are better able to relate to them and understand their needs.

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