If you work in or around education or have school-age children, then somewhere, someone around you has been talking about doing something to help children become better problem solvers. It’s hard to avoid hearing about. As a teacher, the value of building problem-solving skills is obvious to me, but as my husband (often) reminds me, there are many things that having a background in education has taught me about children that lots of other people don’t think about, aren’t aware of, or don’t completely understand. After recent conversations with him, and a few of my non-teacher friends, I think the value of problem solving might be one of these troublesome things.
At the most basic level I think I can safely say that if I asked you, “Would you like your child to be a better problem solver?” of course you’ll say “Yes!” But what does that entail? In what ways should we be building kids’ problem-solving abilities? What kinds of things are kids going to be better at if they are better problem solvers?
Let’s start thinking about what all this really means; of course, all I can share here is what it means to me. For me, good problem-solving skills are often all about how the problem is approached. How do you, or a child, or a friend, approach a challenge? Do you panic? Do you research endlessly? Do you think on it for a while before starting, or jump right in? Are you willing to be wrong and adjust course? Do you know when and how to ask a question that will help you move forward in your thinking, toward the solution? Are you patient? Are you determined? Are you flexible? Think about how you might answer these questions for yourself, or for your child (or your boss!). Think about the people you know who you consider to be good problem solvers. How would they answer these questions? I am willing to bet that the people you consider to be the best problem solvers are less prone to panic, more willing to work a problem all the way to its conclusion, more willing to be wrong, able to try again, and can adjust plans and ideas as necessary without a huge disaster occurring. These are signs of good problem-solving skills.
Now, think about kids. Children aren’t born with the innate ability to calmly and carefully approach problems that are presented to them. We all have to learn these skills. They are not easy skills to master, much less use independently, without someone peering over your shoulder and reminding you to be patient, nudging you to maybe change your approach a little, and urging you to keep going. When I think about building kids’ problem-solving skills, I want to help them to become thoughtful, yet willing to dive in; confident, yet willing to be wrong; tenacious, yet aware of when they’ve hit a dead end; and independent, yet able to collaborate. These are all big goals. I’m sure that many of us as adults are still working on mastering each of those components (I know I have times when I give up, or when I bang my head into a wall rather than admit my approach wasn’t right), and asking these things of our kids is a huge deal. This is why practice matters. The more opportunities we have to practice problem solving, the better problem solvers we become.
Alright, so now you're probably wondering what actually constitutes practice. I would contend that novel problems work best, and that the more kinds of problems encountered, the better. Sometimes the problems that we struggle with are real, or are at least related to real circumstances. Maybe they are actual problems in our households, our neighborhoods, our communities, that we can work with our kids to solve. Great! Real and mostly-real situations are relatable, engaging, and more easily understood by kids. They also can produce results kids can see, and take ownership of (both when things work out, and when they don’t). They provide kids with the chance to try something scary, and maybe even fail, without the world ending. But real-life problems are only part of the experience. Good problem solvers also have to encounter ideas and problems that are abstract, that can’t be touched, or that are completely unfamiliar. Problems like this are inherently more uncomfortable, and often it can be hard to see the value in solving them. I think the value lies in the fact that understanding and solving abstract problems builds a general problem-solving skill set that we can be prepared to use in many kinds of situations, including those that are utterly foreign to us. Often in life we are confronted by problems that are completely outside of our experience sets, and it's times like these where we need the widely applicable problem-solving skills gained from thinking about abstract situations and challenges. Building well-rounded problem solvers means encountering ALL kinds of problems, not just the ones that make us happy, or are relatable, or are based on our experiences.
At exSTEMsions, we pose a new problem every week, and we actively mix up the kinds of problems we present. All are novel, complex, and fun, and provide opportunities to flex a variety of problem-solving muscles; some problems are realistic, while others are much more abstract. Through our curated problems, you can jump into all kinds of awesome thinking, because we believe that a large variety of problem-solving experiences are important in helping kids build strong skills that will support them as adults out in the world, enabling them to solve any problem that crosses their path.
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