Teaching Problem Solving

Yesterday I watched an interview on one of the morning news/talk programs with the author of a new children’s book, “Big Problems, Little Problems,” by Ben Feller. He has written a wonderful little book about teaching our children problem solving.

Those of you that know me know that for much of my working career, I was an adult educator and I specialized in working with “at risk” and “out of school” young adults.

I set a couple of goals for my students, to become self-directed learners and to be able to solve problems. I felt if these goals were achieved my students would have a chance finding a place for themselves at the table of life.

The self-directed learner skill is closely related to problem solving and if anything, is really a subset of being a problem solver. I wanted my students to know that it is ok to make mistakes and mistakes would be honored if they led to self-corrections. I viewed mistakes as integral to the problem solving process. Rare is the pat answer arrived at in the beginning.

I liked to have challenges that I did not have the answer to up front so I could join in the problem solving process. I wanted my students see me try to solve problems with them. I used to give them something I called “a window into my brain” which was really me sharing my thinking/problem solving process with them out loud. I often said, like a doctor, my goal in solving a problem is to cause no harm.

The best days with this were when I made mistakes in my problem solving and had to back up and take a new direction. A great deal of learning happened when I struggled and had to re-think my problem solving process with the students helping me.

We decided the key first step was to define and understand the problem. This was always the starting point and no good things happened until this first step was completed. I cannot say enough about this first step. Recognizing the problem and understanding it is so critical to finding solutions.

I used to say to my students, “When we first start out, it’s ok if we don’t know if we are on foot or horseback, we’ll figure it out and get there.” They would say, “Mr. Pirie, where do you get this stuff?” I would reply, I have been around a long time and had lots of folks to teach me.

Next, we would try to identify all we knew about the problem and write this down – the sort of “what do we know step.” We would discuss this information gathered to make sure we got it right. All opinions were welcomed and honored. Long before, I had established with my students that we were a community and we shared our class together. This helped with treating each other respectfully and listening to other ideas and opinions. I liked to demonstrate how important it was to be a good listener and this predicated solving our problems as a community.

We would test hypotheses and suggested solutions as much as possible before settling on an agreed solution. We looked for reasons to reject a suggested solution and we also looked for successes. Really, what I was teaching was the scientific method and applying this to all problems and the challenges we faced. Sometimes our process was involved and took time to work out, and other times a good solution was quick to present itself.

I used to share a story from my early working days learning to be a carpenter. I had this wonderful boss, an old French carpenter named Paul, and when we ran into some trouble or a problem, he would often say to me, “That’s why I have you here.” I was confused when he first said this to me as I was so eager to learn everything about being a carpenter. I would say, “Why, Paul?” Paul would say back to me, “So I have somebody to blame our problem on.” I laughed with this joke and learned from Paul as he would always include me in coming up with a solution to our problem. He was a great teacher and like an uncle to me. My students always loved this story and it was often repeated during the school year among us. I was so lucky to have these experiences, both growing up and later on as an adult working with young adults.

I had good success in working in alternative education and helping students get a better start on life after high school. There were years, I had the highest graduation rate among my peers in Vermont. I loved the work and the students were the best part of my work. I like to think I helped some young adults find a place for themselves at the table of life.

Take care.

Published by Ed Pirie

I am a Vermonter, been one all my life. That just about tells you all you need to know. I am not much of a follower and like to do my own thinking. I value my family and a quiet existence in a very rural part of Vermont. There is a lot in the world I do not understand. My writing is my attempt to wrap my head around much that is swirling around me. Some time ago gasoline pumps changed to the way they look now. I had stopped to fill my Jeep and I could not get the gas to pump to save my life. I went inside and complained to the attendant. She knew me and said, "Ed, the whole world is changing and if you don't figure out the changes you are going to fall off the earth as it spins around." Well, I am not always successful figuring out the changes, but my writing is my way of working through some of them. I hope you enjoy.

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