We are All Natural (Math) Problem Solvers! | exSTEMsions

We are All Natural (Math) Problem Solvers!

You're a problem solver!

I bet you didn’t know that you are a natural problem solver. I know, some of you are thinking, “nope, not me,” but it’s true. We are ALL natural problem solvers. The key to problem solving is that you have to solve problems in the way that makes the most sense for YOU.

The same holds true for all learners. Every child, every teenager, every adult, and everyone else you can think of is a natural problem solver. You may see this natural inclination in yourself, or you may not, but I can assure you it’s there. If you can see it - great, let’s grow it! If not, that’s okay too - part of what we can do, as parents, as friends, as learners, is help ourselves and others find the path to success that works best for them. Helping them determine how they best solve problems is just one more brick on that path.

It's okay to solve a problem your way

Often, in schools, when kids are asked to solve problems, they are also asked to solve them in a particular manner. They are told to draw a picture, write an equation, or follow certain steps. In a school setting, part of what teachers are trying to do is expose children to the array of ways in which it is possible to solve a problem, which is great. This is a worthy thing to teach kids, for sure.  However, while schools teach children all of the methods to use to solve a problem, they don’t often give children the option to choose the way to solve the problem that is right for them, and use it. So, now what? Knowing this, how do we grow skills in someone who seems inclined towards problem solving, as well as in someone who doesn’t? Interestingly, each type of problem solver needs the same thing. They need permission. They need permission to look at problems and try to solve it their way. You can help with this.

Be open to different ways of solving a problem

When you are helping someone become a better problem solver, the best thing you can do to help is to be open to how that person is inclined to solve it. Do they want to talk about it? Do they want to build something to help them solve? Do they want to draw a picture? Do they want to try a similar problem as an experiment on the side? Do they want to think quietly about it for a little bit, and then experiment with numbers and equations? All of these are okay, especially to begin a problem. Sometimes,when you are helping, you might know that one method is going to work better than another. Just keep in mind that you know that as a result of experience over time - and the only way another person will learn that is to have similar experiences, where they begin to see when and why some methods might work better than others.

Be open to how someone wants to solve the problem. It’s okay if it’s inefficient. It’s also okay if their first attempt doesn’t work. It’s okay (actually, it’s great) if they did it a different way than you might have. Finding inefficiency, when and why to start over, and solving problems in different ways are all fantastic things to get to talk about with a learner. While the problems themselves will help solvers build their skills, these conversations and experiences will do even more. They will help solvers (re)discover and strengthen their natural problem solving skills!

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