*FREE RESOURCE* Reasons you MUST Teach Problem Solving to Your Elementary Classroom

teacher helping students with robot how do elementary students learn problem-solving

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In the midst of the new technology age, it is critical that we are teaching kids problem-solving. But how do elementary students best learn problem-solving? With the ability to effectively problem-solve comes the ability to try and fail and try again, no matter the task (one of the reasons it’s so important to learn coding for kids ). Rather than standardized tests, an evaluation of a child’s ability to reason and act would tell us how that student will face challenges. It’s no question- research shows that learning is maximized when it is presented in the real-world setting. Not only is learning maximized, but memory is too. Lessons learned in these settings are more likely to be committed to their long-term memory.

During their formative years, children need to be immersed in an environment where problems are presented in order to teach and reinforce the development of social skills, critical thinking, and creativity. During middle childhood and early adolescence, children must collaborate to solve problems in order to find enjoyment in planning, building, and accomplishing tasks as a team. These scenarios are also the foundation to learning effective communication skills with peers. Putting learning into practice is a re-emerging trend through STEAM, coding initiatives, and other real-world situations.As educators, we ask; how we can maximize those opportunities so that they might become life-long lessons for our students?

black man climbs pile of refuse on a beach
You never know what obstacles you will encounter

What is a good problem solver?

What does problem-solving for kids look like? While the effective problem solver might be hard to define and depends upon the task at hand, there are a number of characteristics encompassed in that definition. Problem solvers are often experienced or can leverage others’ expertise (Steve Jobs, anyone?) They are often innovators, ready for a challenge. They are strategic, focused, and understand processes so that the project, under their guidance and leadership, moves forward and comes to fruition. Good problem solvers have excellent social skills and are adept at communicating in a way that elevates the team to success. And perhaps most importantly, a problem solver has a passion for the task and is committed to seeing it through. To foster problem-solving skills in your students, employ the following strategies in your classroom:

In order for your students to learn more about what it means to be an innovator who can leverage their own and others’ expertise:

  • Have students research a famous innovator and a problem they solved.

    • What was the problem?
    • Where/How/Why did the problem originate?
    • Outline the process that was followed to solve the problem.
    • Who were the full members of the problem-solving team and how did they work together?
    • How was the problem solved?
Asian teen holds sparkler in hand stem education
It only takes one spark to ignite a passion

Explicitly teach students about passion and effective social skills as they relate to problem-solving.

  • Have students think of someone who they perceive as a passionate leader with effective social skills.

    • Who is this person?
    • How is this person passionate and what are they passionate about?
    • How do they demonstrate the use or application of effective social skills?
    • What impact does this individual have on those around them?
    • What is an important problem this individual has solved?
    • How are you and this person alike?

To reinforce the development of process and direction (as outlined by Dr. Robert Marzano, Learning Sciences International, Marzano Center):

  • Provide a prompt the students need to solve

    • What solution comes to mind for these circumstances?
    • How might you determine if this would be an effective solution?
    • What strategy could be employed in this circumstance?
  • Put the information from the initial prompt to use

    • Predict a possible solution or outcome
    • Test the solution
    • Examine the results
    • Decide of the problem was solved
    • Reflect on the process, revising their knowledge

Create a system, challenge your students

Perhaps the best way to ensure that real-world scenarios and problem-solving are a part of the daily routine? Go out of your way to involve yourself in activities and happenings in the community that offer them. Participation in extracurriculars including camps, sports, or clubs guarantees involvement in more complex activities that reinforce problem-solving because such activities are the basis of these programs.

Another approach might be to create a weekly challenge for yourself, friends, or family members. What is a goal you are looking to achieve? How will you approach it? How can you hold yourself accountable to ensure you are reaching your goals efficiently and effectively? Open-ended questions like these support the problem-solving process and development on the whole. Are you looking to develop problem-solving

Young boy of color wearing a Harvard University shirt at a laptop looking determined to learn problem-slving
Always challenge your students

abilities in your students? Make sure that problem-based tasks or long-term projects that require cooperation with others are a constant when it comes to the instructional program you offer.

Model a problem-solving process

A practical approach to teaching problem solving for children is of course to explicitly teach it using a specific process and allowing that process to play out through your lessons. For example, you ask your students to work in groups to come up with a unique problem that is relevant to their lives that they are motivated to solve, with the process to solve the problem subscribed by you.

Step 1) Understanding the question:

What are the origins of the problem you have selected? In other words, where does the problem come from? In analyzing the origin of the problem, use that information to think of possible solutions. Of those possible solutions, which is the most plausible? Which strategy will you try out?

Step 2) Selecting the strategy:

In order to go through the entire process of problem-solving, one of the most important steps after selecting your problem is identifying the most viable solution. What resources are needed to apply the strategy? What is the timeline to execute? Who will be involved and how?

Step 3) Applying the strategy:

Gather the appropriate team, materials, and timeframe to execute your strategy. As the process is being carried out, be sure to document findings daily. If another person or group wanted to utilize the same strategy to solve the problem, would they have all of the necessary information to duplicate the procedure?

Step 4) Checking your answer:

Are you confident in your findings? Would you be willing to share these findings and results with others? Do your findings offer an opportunity to speak with authority on the problem and solution? If yes, find a practical way to share your knowledge with the community at large. What was your problem, why was it important, and how was it solved?

Teach words that help communicate the process

Mastering 21st-century skills for kids is no simple endeavor- and it is one that requires ample support from the students’ Guide on the Side (that’s you!). As the problem solver or the guide during the problem-solving process, you’ll want to bear in mind that the language used throughout is critical. As the learner works, make sure to plan for and reinforce specific words that help communicate the process of problem-solving, such as symbolic words, content-specific words, and high-value words.

Symbolic words can help the learner think through a scenario using mathematical symbols, for example, or other representations that help to deconstruct and reconstruct the problem. Knowledge and understanding of content-specific words, such as sum or average, is foundational when it comes to applying the knowledge later as the problem-solving process plays out. High-value words, such as determine or predict, help the learner to identify the cognitive processes that must be executed in order to effectively solve the problem at hand.

black male child reading homework problem-solving
Literacy skills are fundamental

How would this look in practice? Prior to kicking off the project, you’ll want to identify the symbolic, content-specific, and high-value words that will likely be new to the learner. To establish the foundational understanding of those new ideas and concepts, incorporate activities designed to help students digest and comprehend them, such as the Vocabulary Four-Square (free download!!!!). Using this template, students diagram the definition of the new word, use it in a sentence, identify a synonym and draw a picture of the word to represent it.

Encourage the process more than the right answer

Once the students are ready to work, how do you know that they will ultimately benefit from the experience equipped with specific takeaways that ensure their success in the future? What checks and balances can be put into place that ensure they will walk away with new skills when it comes to problem-solving, specifically? Simple. Remember that unlike other dichotomous types of learning scenarios that seek to identify a right or wrong answer, problem-solving is different. It is a designed and reinforced process that can be followed across multiple scenarios.

It is one thing to problem solve through a task related to the construction of a model volcano successfully, but furthermore, how can that learning be applied in the future when a student might want to create a new and more complex model? When bearing that in mind, it alleviates pressure for the educator and student and reminds them that the goal is not simply to derive an answer.

The goal is to also learn how to navigate around issues when they don’t go your way, encourage others when they feel frustrated, and even focus on what has been learned versus what hasn’t. In the end, how can a student or group of students cooperate and persevere to get through the entire process of solving a problem from start to finish, regardless of the scenario?

Here are some ideas:

  • Start by explicitly teaching the skill of self-questioning – sample questions: what is the main question? How can I gather useful resources and information?
  • Start by having the students share ideas by brainstorming in a group
  • Embedded in the instruction, teach how to do research and ask questions
  • Teach encouraging slogans to persevere when things get tough, such as “I don’t understand YET

We as educators must introduce these problem-solving scenarios early and often, to reinforce success in our learners and students. In doing so we equip them with the tools they will need throughout their lives. Not only are they confident in the face of a challenge, but they are excited. Someone used to working with a team to solve a problem will always cooperate better with their peers in a group setting. What better place to start these types of activities than in the formative years ideally as early as preschool. What might a problem-solving activity for preschoolers look like?

Young black female child excited to learn about stem
Learning should always be exciting

Teach problem-solving in group learning

Do problem-solving activities need to be restricted to the school environment? Of course not! Like we said, the best and most authentic way to introduce activities like these is through real-world scenarios. Using toys, teaching imaginative play, and analyzing stories as they are read at home; are great ways to teach problem-solving skills individually or in a group setting. Here are some other ideas that can be employed specifically to teach problem-solving in a group:

Acting the problem

Young learners rely on imaginative play and “pretend” to pose scenarios and practice working through the issues that arise along the way. Toys, plays, and other props can be used to facilitate learning as students explore the ideas embedded in their problems.

Charting or diagramming a method to solve the problem

To further emphasize ideas previously mentioned like symbolic language, teach the students to think through the problem using visual representations

Drawing a sketch

Why do scientists sketch models, graphs, and other representations of the outcome? To serve as a guide that can be referenced during the creation process

Making pros and cons table

To analyze viable solutions and select the most appropriate one, model for students or have them create a pros and cons table. Which proposed solution seems to be the most likely to succeed based on this comparison?

Creating a list of steps

Every problem has a solution and a process in between. Explicitly teach students to notate and then follow the specific process agreed upon before starting. Practicing this skill will prove fundamental to later and more complex tasks, like summarizing a process after it’s complete or deciding the next step.

Breaking down the problem

This strategy greatly supports learners who have difficulty deconstructing a problem to see the individual pieces embedded in it. For example, one would not ask a group of students to work together and build a car. As educators, we must reinforce the creation of the individual car parts and assemble them to create the whole as they are ready.

Use problem-solving games for kids

Oregon Trail, anyone? At the core of this computer game back in the ’80s were the concepts of problem-solving and decision making. How did those 400,000 settlers make it all the way to Oregon? I can assure you they encountered problems along the way, such as disease and sickness, hunger, and lack of resources. Without grit and problem-solving, the settlers would have died of dysentery by Iowa. By immersing our students in situations like these, they learn valuable lessons as they face and overcome challenges.

Teaching the foundations of problem-solving can begin at home | Coderz

How coding teaches problem-solving skills

As you have likely noted, many of the processes and skills are what we teach at CoderZ. How does coding teach problem-solving skills? When we teach kids coding we reinforce the planning process. Programmers have to test and identify solutions of debugging, an ongoing aspect of what they do. As coders conclude their work, they find answers to questions that arose during the project. Then they communicate those findings to their community of colleagues and learners.

In Summary

In this article, we have discussed the importance of problem-solving situations in building a foundation for young learners. Problem-solving is a complex and fluid process. The team, materials, and complexity of the task all dictate the evolution of the process. The most important thing we can do as educators is to introduce problem-based scenarios early and often. It matters the most right now to give them the best chance tomorrow.

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