As we all know, some problems have easy solutions and others require a bit more thought.
By that, we obviously don’t mean thinking about a problem for a longer period of time while using the same parameters and variables.
Problem-solving entails examining a situation from a variety of perspectives and with a host of different aspects to arrive at the best solution – not just for that problem but for the larger framework in which it manifested.
What, exactly, are we talking about, here?
We do not mean to infer that word problems in a math assignment represent the opportunity to apply problem-solving skills in the classroom.
Such problems demand logical thinking, not critical thinking which leads to problem-solving.
Who knew that there were so many different types of thinking involved in solving problems?
This article examines the premise of higher-order thinking, its component part called problem-solving and how critical thinking skills are vital to the effort.
What Is Thinking About?
I think, therefore I am – René Decartes
This simple declaration belies the complex mental activity we label ‘thought’. To be sure, people who invent things, as well as great mathematicians and philosophers, could be labelled ‘thinkers’. Decartes himself was considered a great thinker in his time.
But not every thought is on that level, nor does all thinking use the same cognitive processes.
For example, you might say ‘I think it will rain’, a conclusion you arrived at by looking at the laden clouds and feeling excessive humidity and maybe even your aching bones.
To put yourself on the path you followed to your determination of a possible downpour, you drew on the information you learned through both your cognitive and psychomotor domains of learning.
The first draws on your intellectual knowledge and your ability to analyse and the second relies on your perceptions.
Another example of thinking would be: ‘Wow! This soup makes me think of my grandmother!’, possibly because your ancestor cooked a similar-tasting soup.
Here, you made use of very personal memories, employing what you learned through your affective domain – that realm of learning that is governed by emotion.
See how complex the mere idea of thinking can be?
So complicated is it that even psychologists cannot agree on a single definition that wholly characterises thought. Specialists in educational psychology are equally at loggerheads over the issue.
Clearly, students must be given information – that is done by someone who is knowledgeable of facts... in other words, a teacher.
Ideally, students would process that information, arrive at conclusions and connect concepts to form a knowledge base into which they will integrate new facts.
Now things get a bit more tricky.
Our school teachers are very good at imparting information. Given the chance, they would be equally adept at guiding students as they work with this information.
The trouble is, in our current curriculum standards, there is usually only room for one learning activity: either presenting new information OR working with said information.
Generally, the latter aspect of learning is relegated to homework assignments. In such instances, tutors are instrumental in helping students gain thinking skills.
What Are Problems Solving Skills?
Problems are opportunities in work clothes – Henry Kaiser, Industrialist
In the workplace, problem-solving is generally defined as the ability to manage difficult situations and complex challenges.
Do such situations exist in classrooms across the UK?
As far as academics go, primary and secondary school students are usually not confronted with situations where they would need problem-solving skills.
However, cultivating such abilities in the early stages of education would serve students well a bit later in life, perhaps at the undergraduate and graduate levels; and most certainly will impact their career goals.
Thus, were students trained to solve problems as early as possible, it would benefit not just student learning but society as a whole.
The question remains: if students are unlikely to encounter situations where problem-solving skills are needed, how should those skills be taught?
Let’s break down exactly what problem-solving skills involve:
- Creativity – an aspect of student intellect that is unfortunately suppressed in the course of formal education.
- Communication: there is a distinct lack of opportunity for talking in class!
- Active listening – we hope our kids listen to their teachers but there is little chance in a group setting to practise active listening.
- Research and analysis: these skills play a limited role in classroom learning; they are more the purview of after-school assignments
- Team building: in the current teacher-led instruction model, there is no place for this facet of problem-solving.
Even under the current teaching demands, there is still room for teachers to help their students cultivate these skills.
Do you know the difference between critical thinking and higher-order thinking?
How to Turn a Student into a Problem Solver
We’re not taught how to think – Sasuke, university student
This particular undergraduate student hit the nail on the head with her assertion.
As far as our general education standards are concerned, a school teacher’s primary function is to push information and do their best to ensure high test scores.
For educators, this is particularly galling because it appears that those aims and student achievement are mutually exclusive propositions if you consider that said achievement should mean that every student would become a critical thinker and problem solver.
An effective way around that is to embrace active learning and creative thinking in everyday class activities.
Teaching strategies could evolve to include asking open-ended questions which would challenge students’ comprehension of the material at hand.
Naturally, inviting discussion would not necessarily work well in math and science classes; STEM facts are pretty much indisputable. In such classes, a certain amount of memorization is necessary but the assigned work need not be a test of memory.
For teachers of those subjects, group study would be an effective way to cement new knowledge. Furthermore, assigning project-based learning activities could have a formative influence on student learning.
Here’s how such an assignment may look.
Subject: math. The topic: percentages. The assignment: calculate a budget for a fictitious country.
Students must first discuss what must be paid for: education, healthcare, environmental protection, civic matters such as road maintenance and policing, to name a few.
Next, they would collectively calculate what percentage of funds should be allocated to each. The assignment culminates in a presentation of each group's proposed budget.
Classroom activities such as these encourage students to think beyond their personal experiences and they elicit interest (who doesn’t like money!) all while making use of their newly-gained math skills.
As for the educator in the room, s/he needs only to go from group to group, asking the types of questions that would stimulate further thought.
Such a pedagogy is the trademark of a master teacher; it sets the stage for student engagement better than any teacher-centred methodology ever could!
The Role of Problem-Solving in Higher Order Thinking
We described in a sister-article how higher-order thinking comprises of both critical thinking and problem-solving.
The concept of higher order thinking itself has its roots in various learning taxonomies, among them Blooms Taxonomy.
Benjamin Bloom, an American educational psychologist, theorised that learning follows a certain hierarchy determined by the complexity and specificity of what being learned.
There is more than one way that we learn and, to make learning effective, all three domains should be addressed.
Remember how we used the words affective, cognitive and psychomotor earlier in this article?
According to his theory, those are the three domains under which learning is classified.
Applying this model, we see that psychomotor learning starts very early – in infancy, and then effective learning follows shortly after, as toddlers discover emotions and how to manage them.
Cognitive learning really takes off once a child starts school; in fact, throughout a person’s academic career, this type of learning is the one that is overwhelmingly addressed while the other two domains are mostly ignored.
That assertion poses a very serious question: if we do not teach students to reason according to emotional as well as intellectual knowledge, are we creating cognitive disparities that will ultimately affect how people function in society?
Instructional strategies that incorporate both problem-solving and critical thinking would be an effective solution to that admittedly gloomy projection.
Posing higher order thinking questions such as ‘Can you give me an example of...’ or ‘What is the difference between...’ takes students away from the mere spilling of facts on demand and smack into critical thinking territory.
They draw on students’ prior knowledge and cause them to reflect on dissimilar or not-conspicuously related concepts.
Let’s go back to our fictitious country budget example, only this time we project a student who has a severe medical condition that causes many trips to A&E.
As s/he reflects on the assignment, s/he remembers how many times s/he has taken ambulance rides and has had emergency medical treatment.
Drawing on this experience, s/he would urge his group to include funds for emergency medical care into their budget – a facet of government budgeting that perhaps other students would not think to incorporate into their plan.
This student and that group have moved beyond rote work. They are drawing on their multiple intelligences to complete that assignment most creatively.
Later, as they share their work in class, other students could learn from their example, meaning that everyone enjoys enrichment!
Meanwhile, the teacher may bask in the warm glow of being a knowledge facilitator...
Tutors: know when to back off of a higher-order thinking exercise!