For Administrators

Moving Beyond the Worksheet: Developing Advanced Problem-Solving Skills

By Brian Gatens March 13, 2014

Many teachers rely on worksheets to reinforce class topics and allow students to practice classwork at home. Worksheets can be a good thing when used in moderation, but they shouldn’t be a primary activity in the classroom. Instead, teachers need to focus on developing advanced problem-solving skills, which are growing more and more essential in today’s world. A side benefit is that exercises to improve problem-solving skills often present challenges that make the class more interesting for students.

Here are a few guidelines for building problem-solving skills:

Bring in the outside world

Working on problem-solving skills can seem relatively dry at first glance. One sure way to make it relevant and interesting for your students is to bring in outside professionals who use these skills every day. Good examples would not only be obvious choices, such as doctors or lawyers, but also engineers and, if I may suggest, school administrators.

Your guests should be able to speak directly to the importance of understanding, analyzing and repeatedly attempting to solve problems. Along with the problem-solving component, this is also a nice opportunity to integrate some career education into your classroom.

Explicitly teach the stages

Don’t assume your students know how to practice problem solving. You’ll need to spend class time helping students learn to:

  • Identify problems
  • Understand all their dimensions
  • Analyze the overall situation
  • Establish and attempt possible solutions
  • Repeat the cycle as necessary

These should be taught “dry” in the classroom separate from an actual problem, and then applied to a relatively easy model problem to solve. This will let students learn the stages in a non-intense environment.

Share Stanford’s D-School with your students

There is no better example of an institution dedicated to problem solving than Stanford University’s Institute of Design, or “D-School” as many call it.  This design school has entire courses dedicated to identifying problems and solving them in the most human-centered way.

The institute has an excellent user-friendly website (and a 90-minute “crash course”) that offers an overview of its work that can be integrated into a class activity. The institute’s forward-looking philosophy and youth-based approach is also very inviting to students and will definitely generate interest.

Be publicly accountable

As part of your classwork, identify a local problem and set about addressing it. Once the issue is identified, your students should share their work with the overall community. Doing this adds relevance to their work, but the public knowledge of their work will also act as a motivator to do their best.

You may even go so far as to request permission from the school administration to set up a blog on the school website to report on and track your work.

Find a strong example

I’m a big fan of Partners in Health (PIH), an international aid group that works primarily in Haiti. The group’s entire ethic is focused on bringing long-lasting and humane solutions to underserved populations. PIH’s work is relevant to your desire to teach problem-solving, as it continues to look for newer and better ways to help people.

One example is how the group figured out how to keep power supplied to its hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti. Rather than rely on a spotty electrical grid, PIH worked with donors and technology companies to create a primarily solar-powered solution.

The teaching of problem solving is a messy, non-linear event. Your students need to be taught that rarely will they move quickly from the issue at hand to a long-term and workable solution. Use historical examples to support your topic, rely upon the work of your class and have them practice again and again. When they master these skills, they’ll ask you to NOT distribute worksheets. And that’s a nice problem to have — one that doesn’t need solving.

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