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How to Teach Problem Solving

Imagine trying to build a two-story tenement building on a one-story community-theater stage—all on a tight budget in two weeks. That's a problem a friend and I recently faced. First we planned our work: I designed a structure with shortened stories, and my friend turned my pencil sketches into 3D CAD drawings. Then we worked our plan, framing walls and floors, removing low-hanging lights, and installing pool noodles around rafters to keep actors from hitting their heads.

When we finished, the director was thrilled. The show even had a couple linebackers singing songs from the second-story windows. That's the power of problem solving.

Did you notice the dynamic between my friend and me? I love to think creatively, and he loves to think analytically. I came up with the broad strokes of the design, and he made sure all the details worked. Left alone, I would have come up with a grand vision and been unable to bring it to life. Left alone, my friend would not have known where to begin.

Critical and creative thinking have to work together to solve problems.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to closely analyze a situation, question information and sources, and patiently seek answers. Four qualities characterize critical thinking:

  • Curiosity—the drive to understand something that is unknown
  • Skepticism—the unwillingness to accept a position until evidence and logic support it
  • Persistence—the grit to keep seeking answers in the face of complex uncertainties
  • Humility—the realization that one's own conclusions about a situation might be wrong

Critical thinking is reductive. It reaches inward, establishing categories and patiently learning what is there. It is slow and meticulous and a bit dry.

For example, when my friend and I built the set, I submitted plans for floor sections measuring 6 feet by 8 feet, saying we could buy the lumber at those lengths and not have to cut it. My critical thinking friend pointed out that my plans would end up with sections measuring 6 feet by 8 feet 3 inches (because of the width of the lumber on either end). I had to change my plans to accommodate longer floor sections.

How can I teach critical thinking?

Anytime you require students to analyze something—a text, a formula, a chemical reaction, a crisis—you are teaching critical thinking. Anytime you require students to conduct research to find solid answers to complex questions, you are teaching critical thinking. Anytime you require students to state a position and argue for it using logic and evidence, you are teaching critical thinking.

Whatever the subject you are teaching, you can incorporate the following critical-thinking minilessons:

What is creative thinking?

Creative thinking is the ability to discover many new possibilities. The classic Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking measure creativity according to these abilities:

  • Fluency—the ability to generate many ideas in response to a situation
  • Flexibility—the ability to think in many different ways about a situation
  • Originality—the ability to produce unique responses to a situation
  • Elaboration—the ability to generate a depth of detail in responses

Creative thinking is expansive. It reaches outward, breaks down barriers, and discovers new ground. It is rapid-fire and prodigious and a bit reckless.

Or, back to the example of the set—never before had a two-story set appeared on that stage. "That's impossible!" went the conventional wisdom. The creative thinker loves the impossible. By creating many design innovations and redefining the boundaries of the stage, we created a two-story set that allowed even the people sitting farthest up in the last row of the theater to see to the tops of the second-story windows.

How can I teach creative thinking?

Anytime you confront students with seemingly impossible problems—income inequality, educational funding, the war on terror, even a cure for cancer—and challenge them to come up with solutions, you are teaching creative thinking. Anytime you require students to find connections across disciplines—how math can help them understand history, or how scientists should think like musicians—you are teaching them to think creatively. Anytime you require students to think from different perspectives, you are teaching creative thinking. Creativity isn't just for art teachers. It is crucial in all disciplines.

No matter what you are teaching, you can incorporate some of these creative-thinking minilessons:

What is problem solving?

Problem solving is the back-and-forth interplay of critical and creative thinking. The following chart from Inquire High School shows how these two types of thinking interact:

Problem solving is best taught in an authentic environment, in which students have real issues and their solutions have real consequences. Interestingly, we have often taught problem solving as a purely academic exercise—"solve for x," knowing that one specific correct value for x exists and is printed in the back of the teacher's edition. However, real-world problem solving does not involve known answers, but the productive creation and testing of unknown answers. Classes outside of the "core" specialize in such instruction—tech ed, art, gym, drama, band. In each of these classes, students must solve real problems and enjoy (or suffer) real consequences based on their solutions. (Note how we have just creatively discovered one way that scientists should think like musicians—or quarterbacks!)

How can I teach problem solving?

Use this video minilesson to introduce the problem-solving process. Then, in whatever discipline you teach, present your students with thorny, real-world problems that have no clear-cut solution and get them to use the problem-solving process to come up with solutions. Resist the urge to solve the problem for them. Resist the temptation of having one solution in mind. Instead, require students to invent a solution using their best critical and creative thinking.

Why is problem solving important?

Problem solving is key to success in all aspects of life. What must college students do to succeed? Solve problems. What must people in the workplace do to succeed? Solve problems. What must people simply living life do to succeed? Solve problems. If you teach your students to solve problems by using critical and creative thinking, you will equip them with one of the most important skills for success in college, career, and beyond.




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