Why Teaching Problem Solving Skills Is More Important Now Than Ever
By Maloy Burman
Problem solving is an essential life skill. In all parts of your life (your career, your home life, your finances, your hobbies, your relationships) you will come across adversities, or problems, and you will need to find solutions before you can carry on or move on.
In educational terms, however, the problem solving often applies more to math or engineering lessons, where teachers give exercises for students to apply the knowledge and procedures taught. Examples include the unitary method in math, or in chemistry, mole fraction calculations. These lessons are usually more about consolidating subject knowledge than teaching problem solving as a general skill, and thus can be quite rigid.
You will see even less talk of problem solving in other areas of the curriculum. Where exam results put pressure on teachers and students, knowledge and skill processes that will help to pass these exams mean that more general life skills like problem solving are often squeezed out of today’s curriculum.
Is the modern curriculum letting students down by not putting enough emphasis on this vital skill, a skill that will benefit them throughout their education and in life beyond?
Yes, it possibly is, especially when you look in depth at the benefits of problem solving skills and how these benefits could impact achievement overall.
What Exactly Is Meant By Problem Solving?
Problem solving is actually a process that combines the application of many other skills, such as thinking critically, making effective decisions, and being practical, methodical and patient.
Engineering professor Woods defined a universal model for problem-solving that demonstrates the sub-skills that need to be mastered to be effective problem-solvers:
- Being able to identify the knowns, unknowns and assumptions for the particular situation, as well as the constraints.
- Being able to gather relevant information, whether it be by activating prior knowledge or through research.
- Being able to collate ideas and possible strategies based on all the above, and identify the most likely to succeed.
- Being able to apply these ideas and strategies methodically, persistently and patiently.
- Being reflective and evaluating throughout the process.
These are the concrete steps that need to be taught, alongside the language needed to communicate with peers during the problem solving process.
Top 5 Reasons Why Problem Solving Should Be Taught More
1. It produces self-confidence and self-esteem.
The student who learns to take a difficult challenge and to independently find a solution will be a self-confident individual. They will be capable of personal responsibility. They are more likely to be lifelong learners because they are fully equipped with the skills to learn independently.
2. It fosters creativity.
Learning to solve problems teaches children to look at things in a variety of ways, which of course links to enhanced creativity.
3. It teaches children to be proactive.
Children must grow up being active and engaged with the world around them, not passive or afraid of challenge.
4. It fosters persistence and hard work.
The answers in life aren’t usually handed out on a plate. Children learn that hard work brings great rewards and a feeling of self-accomplishment.
5. It equips children with the right language to deal with conflict and differences of opinion.
By teaching children the language of problem solving, they are taught the language of negotiation and mediation, and to find compromise and shared solutions.
These are all life skills, but they are also skills that could have a significant influence on educational achievement in the shorter term.
Ultimately, the goal is for students to leave school independent and confident, but they must also maximize their potential for achievement now. These are the reasons why more problem-solving is needed in today’s classrooms.
Practical Ways to Get More Problem Solving Into the Curriculum
- When looking at lesson ideas, evaluate opportunities for extended problem-solving across the curriculum; from literacy to physical education, design technology to personal/social education.
- Model problem-solving methods, such as Woods, to your students, as well as the necessary language. Look at expanding vocabulary to facilitate good discussion among students.
- Look for interesting problem-solving styles that will appeal to different types of learners, such as drawing pictures and diagrams, or using drama and role-play to explore a problem.
- Allow more time for students to share points of view, collate ideas as a group and reflect collectively.
- Use questioning (What would happen if…? Have you considered…?) to encourage development of reasoning, deductive thinking and reflection.
Problem solving is a vital skill that our students can carry with them for the rest of their lives. How do you inspire a healthy atmosphere for problem solving in your classroom? Please share your ideas below.
Maloy Burman is the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Premier Genie FZ LLC. He is responsible for driving Premier Genie into a leadership position in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education space in Asia, Middle East and Africa and building a solid brand value. Premier Genie is currently running 5 centers in Dubai and 5 centers in India with a goal to multiply that over the next 5 years.