Creating Critical Thinkers and Problem Solvers

One firm belief about education I hold is twenty-first century learners are critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. They must be to function in the world we live in today, as well as to be prepared for future jobs (which have not even been thought of). As I watched an episode of “Tiny House, Big Living,” it really made me think about this idea even more. To fit all the design elements into the small space, it took creative problem solving for the builders. It went beyond solving a simple problem, as the builders needed to re-imagine everyday house features to make them multi-functional. This is a skill all students must master to prime them for their future.

How do teachers accomplish the task of creating critical thinkers and problem solvers? One idea is to pose the problem to students, give them resources, and let them figure it out by working with a partner, small group, or on their own. Once students have determined a solution, then a class discussion is held in which they explain their thinking. I was first exposed to this idea in October 2005 when I was in Japan. I observed an elementary level math class in which the problem was on the board, manipulatives were on the students’ desks (arranged in groups of four), and students worked to determine the solution. The teacher held back the first few minutes as students worked, then walked around the classroom only briefly making comments to the student groups. I was completely clueless as to what was being said, as it was all in Japanese, however I observed students who immediately jumped into a challenge with confidence, then presented their solutions to peers. I also observed the same structure in the science classroom visited.

This idea has crossed the ocean and is being seen in American classrooms. Cathy Seely calls it the “Upside-Down Teaching” model (Educational Leadership, October 2017, ASCD). The steps to the model are:

  1. You (students) tackle a problem you may not know how to solve.
  2. We (students and teacher) talk together about your thinking and your work.
  3. I (teacher) help connect the class discussion to the goal of the lesson.

Students take ownership of their learning as they are active participants and everyone’s thinking is valued. Not only can this model be used in math and science classrooms, but across all subjects. The key is in the planning of the question to promote problem solving.

Parents can also foster critical thinking skills in children by letting them solve their problems, then discussing the solution. I have a five-year-old and two-year-old who both like to help around the house. One chore is putting our dog in his kennel when we leave the house, then letting him out upon our return. This had always been our older child’s job, and the younger one wanted to help too. After a few mornings and evenings of arguing and crying, my parent patience had worn thin. I explained to the children we could not have this happening two times per day, and they needed to solve the problem. Leaving the next morning, my older child explained to me that they decided the younger one would put the dog up when we leave, and he would let the dog out upon our return. Since it was a solution “they decided” together there is buy-in on both sides, and the chore is completed peacefully. My hope is in the future they will work together to solve their problems, as well as use the strategy with issues between their peers.

Unless we give children the opportunity to solve problems without adult support, they will not build the skills necessary to do it on their own. The career opportunities for today’s youth have yet to be dreamed. So, we need to prepare them with the creative problem solving skills to construct a staircase which can function as a dog kennel and dining room table for a tiny house.

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