Problem Solving is a Requirement for Children’s Real Learning!

Problem solving = real learning.
Problem solving. Discovery. Expressing ideas. Exploring. Constructing knowledge.

Young children, even very young children, need consistent opportunities to wrestle with age-appropriate challenges, conundrums, complications, obstacles, issues and “big fat botherations.”

Why?

BEWARE: Obvious answer ahead… because life is full of problems (always has been ~ always will be) and resisting them, complaining about them, or running away from them is just no way to live.

What kinds of problems do children need to solve?
Empathy cannot be forced or taught, but it can be evoked.
Does making kids share make them generous?

SHARING & INCLUDING, for starters:  Kids don’t always want to share. They don’t always want to include others, either… BUT kids do always want others to share with them, and they do always want to be included. How do we, their teachers, put those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites together?

ANSWER: We enable children to discover their own solutions by asking them the kinds of questions that get them thinking, together, in fresh ways (with fresh perspectives) about old familiar problems.

If we’re going to really succeed at supporting our students in resolving their own challenges, then we must view our role from a big-picture point of view, rather than attempting to implement immediate ‘fixes’ or behavior modifications. Kids need help with honestly exploring their own and others’ feelings about challenging situations that are oh-so-familiar.  Children need gentle *guidance (where to look, but not what to see) in order to understand that all kids in their group feel pretty much the same when it comes to sharing.   (*Guidance is best achieved with the right kinds of questions that invite kids, within peer group discussions, to safely express themselves and listen to each other, in a non-judgmental setting.)

The more kids learn and experience how much they genuinely share feelings and understanding, related to a variety of situations, the less alone/shy/isolated they’ll feel, and the stronger will be their sense of belonging to, and being part of, the group. Sharing is easier in that kind of environment. And if not sharing, then shared understanding about why “it’s just too hard to share that last cookie with someone else.” 

Sharing isn't always possible
Sharing isn’t always possible, but understanding each other is a big help.
Communication is key for real problem solving to occur.
Communication is key to problem solving for children.
Collaboration is an essential problem solving tool.

 

Activate and Exercise Students’ Thinking Skills: #Nuclear Option

As educators, it is our profound responsibility to activate and exercise students’ thinking skills every day. Peer group discussions, based on open-ended questions, can get kids engaged with current events, especially if we don’t start out with lectures.

Rules are for reasons.
Making Politics RELEVANT for the Purpose of Activating and Exercising Middle Schoolers’ Thinking Skills

The GOP’s recent use of the Nuclear Option, in order to blast through the Democrats’ attempt to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, offers plenty of potential to increase kids’ awareness and involvement with the world they’re growing into – if we open the subject by establishing relevance(Actually, when it comes to successfully educating today’s youth, nothing – NOTHING – is a more essential responsibility of teachers than establishing relevance.)

Suggestions for Open-Ended Questions to Activate and Exercise Thinking Skills for Relevant Peer Group Discussions

(Start broadly in order to create relevance through known associations.)

  1. Have you ever been playing a game with some kids, and out of no where one (or more of them) announced different rules? Who has a story about a time like that?
  2. How did you react? If other kids were involved, how did they react to the sudden rule changes?
  3. WHY do you think that person (or people) made that sudden rule change? HOW did they justify their new rule to you (and to the other players)?
  4. Did their justifications (reasons) make sense to you?  Why or why not?
  5. What happened next?
  6. Name some of your favorite sports and favorite teams. What is it that you like most about those sports / those teams / those players? Share some specifics with the rest of our group.
  7. Is there anything you don’t like about those sports / those teams / those players? Share some specifics with the rest of our group.
  8. What does the term “Nuclear Option” mean? (Encourage students to say the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear that term. Be open to all their contributions. Explain that you’re all exploring new ideas together – so “mistakes” demonstrate effort, and nothing negative.)
  9. Does anyone know what it means when it’s associated with interactions and decision-making in the U.S. Senate?  (Very brief explanation: The nuclear option is a parliamentary procedure that allows the U.S. Senate to override / change a rule … with a simple majority of 51 votes, instead of with a supermajority of 60 votes … effectively ending a 60-vote requirement for confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee or the passage of legislation.)
  10. How could this possibly matter to your life?RELEVANCE is the all-important factor for young learners.
  11. Do any of you know how the Senate responded to Obama’s candidate for Supreme Court Judge – just a few months before he left office? 
  12. Let’s think about some reasons that might have been behind the recent implementation of the Nuclear Option. 
  13. Again … how could this possibly matter to your life?
  14. The role of judges is to interpret laws objectively. Is anyone ever completely objective? Why do you think that? What examples can you give of people being completely objective? What about examples of people (coaches, referees, parents, teachers, police, friends, teammates, etc.) being partially objective?

Complete objectivity is a lofty goal, but rarely is it not mixed with subjectivity.

Educators’ Critical Responsibility: Activate and Exercise Students’ Thinking Skills – Their Futures Depend On It.

“In our evolving world, the ability to think is fast becoming more desirable than any fixed set of skills or knowledge.  We need problem solvers, decision makers and innovators.  We need to prepare our children for their future, not for our past.”             – Mike Fleetham


Activate and exercise students' thinking skills so they're ready to deal with the world's problems.

Students’ Need Thinking Skills to Solve the World’s Problems

How do we prepare students, even very young students, to constructively engage with the world they’re growing into? As educators, we must activate and exercise students’ thinking skills many times every day. Not, of course, in overly serious ways, because children must be allowed to develop at a natural pace through the stages of childhood.

Exercising Thinking Skills Can Be Fun and Relevant

Fortunately, there are ways to exercise children’s thinking skills in ways that directly improve their own day-to-day lives.

Thinking skills, like any skill, must be developed and exercised.
Peer group discussions, based on open-ended questions that create curiosity in others’ answers help to hone thinking along with collaborative problem-solving skills.

With the right kinds of questions (and zero lecturing), young children’s thinking skills can be exercised, so those skills naturally become stronger. Questions can and should be about familiar topics – like, how to:  √ treat animals,  √ play fairly,  √ get someone’s attention. The right kinds of questions (non-leading and open-ended) will draw upon children’s hardwired honesty, common sense, and ability to empathize.

Using Critical Thinking to Find Trustworthy Websites
Day-to-day situations and interactions are great starting points for engaging students' critical thinking skills.
When the right kinds of questions are presented, students’ thinking engages around relevant problems and challenges.

By the time students are in middle school they have become much less likely to ask questions around everyday elements of their lives. Why? Too embarrassing to appear ‘dumb.’  No problem. We, as their educators, can present topics of discussion for the entire class, with directives on how to discover the most trustworthy answers.  (DIRECT BENEFITS: Everyone saves “face,” while gaining the benefits of what they need to learn.)

What about Cyberbullying?

How do we get students thinking about the ramifications of their online communications, without lecturing? Peer group discussions with, again, non-leading and open-ended questions helps to bring issues “into the light,” without putting anyone on the defensive. When students consistently receive opportunities to think together, they will come to conclusions, and even solutions, that work for everyone.  Can you think of a better way to prepare them for developing the sophisticated problem-solving skills they’ll need as adults?

We can prepare our students to deal with the world's problems by exercising their thinking skills everyday.
The world’s serious challenges which will require serious thinking and problem-solving skills from today’s youth.

Ask Useful QUESTIONS. Really IMPORTANT.

There’s a world of difference between useful questions and useless questions.

What’s the difference? Useful questions help to focus attention on intended goals. Useless questions focus on the pain required to achieve those intended goals.

The illustration at the top of this article pretty clearly demonstrates how a useful question leads attention towards focusing on the long view for achieving intended goals. Focusing on the long view helps to keep attention away from immediate downsides and discomforts. When we help our students develop and maintain focus on the long view, we’re helping them to build growth mindset.

An unhelpful or even downright useless question focuses attention on short-term gains. And short term gains rarely, if ever, develop growth mindset.

Ask the right questions to get the right results.
USEFUL questions can help maintain attention on the long view for growth mindset.
It’s not just what we ask, but also HOW we ask …

When we ask one of these questions that we hope will help to develop growth mindset, let’s always remember that wordless communication has a significant effect. Can we ask useful questions with genuine respect? Can we ask useful questions with authentic openness to whatever answers the students have, so that openings are created for honest, 2-way discussions?

Whenever our students feel genuinely heard, like all human beings, they’re much more likely to also listen. (Maybe not right away, but if they get used to being heard -genuinely, with respect and undivided attention- they’ll be more open to genuinely, with respect and undivided attention, listening to others.)

IF & WHEN we ask useful questions with a true sense of positive expectation for the wisdom of our students, they will pick up on it. (Because, as you know and experience every day, we’re all picking up on each other’s unspoken signals, feelings and judgments, pretty much all the time. Right?!!)


A few more examples of USEFUL questions to help grow students’ growth mindset …
  • What do you think you might be missing?
  • What are some ways you could look at this in completely different ways?
  • Are you on the right track, but just missing a few pieces?
  • Would brainstorming with someone else help?
  • What do you think would hurt more: Giving up   OR    Making the extra effort to train your brain to eventually get it?

Deep Thinking Trumped by “Entertain Me” Culture

Concerned by the apparent fact that being entertained trumps many Americans’ inclination to engage in deep thinking? Then please read on.

True, life is a tangled mess these days. It’s stressful to the max, and people need a little ‘escape’ time, but have we gone too far in the ‘escape’ time direction? And at what cost?  

What does this have to do with our roles as educators? 

“We ask questions to discover students’ level of understanding. Then we quickly move on because we have curriculum to cover. Great teachers go a bit deeper. They ask questions that take students from surface to deep, and even inspire students to ask their own questions.

Is it harder for teachers to go deep because society likes surface? Or do we need to work harder to go deep to combat society’s need to stay at the surface level?”  Peter DeWitt

There are serious costs to not helping students gain personal satisfaction in deep thinking around challenging topics. For one, their vulnerability to unsupported claims when exposed to media, to politicians, and to sales people increases.

Students’ deep thinking ‘muscles’ must be exercised – regularly!

The ability to discern facts is a crucial skill for students to exercise and master, starting in their earliest years.  Reading, writing and numbers are important basic tools for learning, of course. Our responsibility to students, though, must expand beyond providing basic tools. We’ve got to exercise students’ ability to question and to evaluate, starting with challenges common to all of them.

How else will they develop the habit of dealing rather than avoiding? How else will they experience the satisfaction of ‘seeing through’ points of view that don’t deserve total buy in?

Exercise their deep thinking muscles when they’re young

Young kids’ natural curiosity can be easily engaged in circle time problem-solving opportunities. Ellen Booth Church, author of “Educating Next-Generation Innovators,” suggests circle time discussions. Get kids thinking together about what’s same and what’s different amongst characters in a story you’re reading to them.

The kids will probably start by identifying different visual features of the characters. That’s fine, it gets the wheels spinning. Then go a little deeper. Ask if the kids can identify similar needs and feelings amongst the characters in the story. Perhaps go from the characters‘ needs and feelings to a comparison of the students‘ own needs and feelings.

Early practice with deep thinking exercises, if handled properly, help students gain confidence in their own reasoning abilities.  With that confidence, they’re less likely to resist thoughtful analysis when challenges arise. Can you imagine how that would benefit our country?

Far-reaching benefits of deep thinking

Democracy cannot survive too much ignorance, or eroded civic knowledge, or complacency …  Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter explains this very serious concern with accessible language in thought-provoking 3 minute video.

Can we make deep thinking as engaging to our students as the 24-hour flashiness that is constantly available to them?  We can. It’s a challenge, but we can, and they’ll thank us forever if we consistently provide those kinds of meaningful opportunities.

Fortunately, creating consistent opportunities for our students’s to exercise their deep thinking skills is rewarding for us, too. We soon find our jobs becoming easier, rather than more difficult. Why? Because the students’ self-respect and mutual respect grow with this focus on their development as 21st century citizens.

Source inspirations for this post: What Presidential Candidates, Brangelina, and Reality Television Mean for Education and http://www.samchaltain.com/blog