Problem solving

I had promised a post on problem solving, somewhat of a response to this post, where Dave Burkhart puzzles over the problem with students who can’t seem to solve the problems put before them and instead wait for the teacher to give them an answer.  I see this all the time across all my classes.  Younger students are particularly dependent on answers from the teacher.  In my 6th grade class the other day, where we were coding up simple html and css pages, my students had their hands up almost every time something didn’t work, despite having detailed handouts in front of them which they could look at and figure out what went wrong.  I finally stopped and said, “I see a ton of hands up.  I want you all to put your hands down, look at your handouts or use Google to try to figure out what’s wrong.”  It’s somewhat excusable for students that young doing something that’s fairly difficult, but still, I constantly point out that they have the power to figure something out themselves if, by no other means than using the powerful machine that sits in front of them and which they often see as primarily something that they play games and write papers on.  That it might contain the answer to their question is astounding to them, it seems.

My high school level students are all doing projects of their own choosing.  I often don’t know exactly how to get them where they want to go.  Like Dave, I have students who wait for me to help and those that constantly ask what to do next.  To some extent, I think it’s a confidence issue.  They aren’t sure of their own ability to figure out the problem.  Most of my students do actually try a few things before they ask me for help.  But almost none of them spend time looking at the online resources or Google the answer. And, of course, it’s faster to ask me.  However, what I often do is ask questions.  “What are you trying do?” “Okay, what do you think might work there?” “Okay, you have to loop through this.  How do you do that usually?”  Some of it is learning concepts in one context and then having to apply it to another.  In other words, it’s about abstracting knowledge.  And that’s a challenging thing for many students.

In my robotics club, I’m seeing huge strides in problem-solving ability.  It’s kind of a chaotic environment (as opposed to a regular classroom).  Each team of 4-5 girls are faced with a challenge: build and program a robot that can complete several different tasks. They aren’t given instructions or drawings.  They’re given a box of metal and screws and nuts, motors and wires.  Almost every time they ask me how to do something, I’ll say I don’t know, and they know I really don’t.  Because when you’re talking about original design, no one knows exactly how to make something happen.  I’ve watched them go from fighting amongst themselves to standing around their robot, saying things like, “Maybe if we put stand-offs here that will stabilize it.” “What if we put gears at the bottom, the objects will be pulled in better.” “Maybe we need to tighten these screws here to keep the structure from wobbling so much.” The ideas bounce around until they settle on something that everyone agrees might actually work.  Considering how hard it was for them to work together at the beginning, I think this is an amazing achievement. And, thankfully, they’re being rewarded for it.

I don’t know what the exact answer is, but project-based processes seem to encourage problem solving more than discrete assignments with teacher-defined goals.  At least that’s been my experience so far.  I want to learn more and see research related to this. I don’t think my hunches are good enough.  And if there’s a way to encourage it across all my classes, that would be a big win.


One Reply to “Problem solving”

  1. I think it’s important to teach them the questions to ask themselves. These may be different depending on the type of problem, or more generally the discipline (eg. engineers do problem solving differently than mathematicians etc.). For example, from, say, pre-proof math or physics: draw a picture, what are you trying to find, what do you already know, what can you fill in from what you already know, etc. It might be worth formalizing what those steps are on the board, not necessarily specifically with loops but the more general “What are you trying to do” etc.

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