One of the things that happens to us all, as learners, is that we find an approach to solving problems that works, and we try to stick with it. For me, that has always meant writing down my thoughts, and trying to use words to explain things to myself and others. I have long used this strategy in all areas, especially since I realized as a kid that if I could explain my thinking in words, then sometimes the teacher wouldn’t make me write the equation that they originally asked for. It often worked, and kept me from doing things I wasn’t comfortable doing.
I think that teachers were often surprised by my willingness to write like I was puzzling through the solution, even when it didn’t work out, and many times I got credit for things I probably shouldn’t have. What I see now, as an adult, a teacher, and a parent, is that by not making me solve problems in another way, many teachers over the years let me off the hook. I didn’t have to do the work that would have been uncomfortable, and a little more challenging, but that I would have learned more by doing.
As learners we might have a way that we prefer to solve problems. I know that it helps me to remember things when I write them down in words (the post-it note disaster on my desk, as we speak, can serve as proof). This doesn’t mean, though, that this is always a helpful approach to solving a problem. I’ve had to learn, as an adult, on the fly while teaching others, that it’s important to find the solution to a problem in multiple ways. I’ve had to learn to really consider which approach is best, and be thoughtful about what makes sense, rather than just applying my favorite approach, no matter what.
So how do we help our kids to solve problems in multiple ways? By asking them to. The you ask question can be super simple - it's some version of "How could you solve this problem another way?", or "How could you use solve this problem using a different strategy?". That's it. From there it's just a matter of what they come up with. I am often incredibly surprised (and impressed) by the results that I get out of this question because kids return with ideas and explanations that I never would have thought of, or that are far more efficient and elegant than their first attempt.
I always keep one important thing in mind when I pose this question to others. It's important to ask this question as a 'How could you...' question, rather than a 'Can you...' question. This is because if I say to my kids 'Can you solve this problem another way?' the question leaves them room to squirm off the hook by just saying 'Nope!'
SO much! Let me make you a short list...
There are plenty more reasons where these came from, but you get what I’m saying. There are so many things that are learned from solving a problem in a number of ways, and the learning goes way beyond finding the answer. It’s almost always worthwhile to ask a learner “Hey, what's another way to solve this problem?” It may not be comfortable, but it will be worth it.
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