Miscellaneous, Tips & Tricks

Helping Students Become Problem Solvers

For the past few years, I’ve noticed that many of my 3rd graders start off the year struggling with the concept of problem solving. Not only in math class but throughout the day and in all areas.
For example, if my kiddos have a problem with a classmate… they come to me in hopes of a solution. If they’ve forgotten their
pencil at home… they ask what they should do. If they are stuck on a math problem rather than attempt to solve it… they shout out “I don’t get it!”
Have you noticed the same thing? If so, then this post is for you because today I’ve decided to share a few tips that have been working for my third graders. Let’s start with some basics…

 

This is a process in which students are encouraged to think for themselves and adapt to unfamiliar circumstances or situations. This method involves teaching students a series of steps that will help them solve problems. It encourages flexibility, perseverance, resourcefulness, and common sense rather than relying on others to tell them what to do.
The main premise behind this approach is that students need to learn to figure things out on their own. They need to learn to make hypothesis, test out their ideas, adjust their thinking if need be, collaborate with others, and take risks.
This is usually the most difficult step for students. It involves them being able to verbalize what the problem is in their own words. In the beginning, I recommend having students work with a partner or in groups to write down a problem statement. “What’s wrong? What’s the problem?” It is important that they learn to write clear and specific problem statements. For example: How will I complete my homework on nights that I have baseball practice?
What is preventing them from reaching their goals. Identifying barriers right from the beginning, will help them when they have to come up with possible solutions. For example: When I come home from baseball practice I have to shower and eat dinner. Then I’m too tired to do homework. These 2 factors are keeping me from finishing my homework.

 

Brainstorm possible solutions. Try to have them come up with as many solutions as possible with a minimum of 2-3. Having multiple solutions allows them to have a backup plan in case their initial ideas don’t work out.
It might also be helpful to think about how others have solved similar problems. I like to encourage my students to accept every idea during a brainstorming session, even if it seems silly… If you think it, write it down I always tell them. For example: I can start my homework on the way home, work on hw on the way to baseball practice, ask the teacher for work in advance, wake up
early in the morning to complete hw…

 

 

Test out solutions and if their first idea doesn’t work,  try something else. Remind them that mistakes are part of the learning process and that it’s okay if they have to go through a few solutions in order to get to the one that works best. Perseverance is essential for success! Some of the best scientists test numerous theories over the course of many years before achieving the results they had been hoping for.
This step is difficult for many. In the beginning you might see them throwing in the towel when their first idea doesn’t work. This is your moment to encourage them, motivate them, and remind them that this is all part of the process. Keep in mind that mastering this step is really going to come in handy during math class.

 

Once students have tested possible solutions it is time for them to reflect on the results. Are they satisfied with what they have achieved? If not, then they need to consider what they should have done differently. Do NOT skip this step or rush through it! This is where much of the learning will take place. Reflection is a key life long skill. Even us as adults should remind ourselves to reflect every now and then.
If you like the posters above you can snag yourself a FREE copy by clicking on the images below.  I’ve also included a recording sheet that you can use with your students in the beginning as they’re practicing.

 

Now that we understand the problem solving approach a little bit better, let’s talk about those tips I promised you…
Teach problem solving skills in ALL areas! This skill can be applied in math, science, reading, social situations, etc… Help your students understand that problem solving is a life long skill. It is something that they will continue to use in the classroom, at home, in college, and in their adult lives. Do not be afraid to share stories with them about how you’ve been able to solve a few of your own dilemmas. Another neat idea is to have students help you come up with possible solutions to a problem you might be having in the classroom.. such as class disruptions that occur when students use a pencil sharpener during a lesson.
Model… Model… Model! Problem solving is not an easy task. It is challenging, can be time consuming, requires students to be flexible and to persevere. {It is not for the faint of heart… LOL} In your daily classroom routines show your students that you can be patient when solving problems. Share your thinking aloud with them so that they are able to make connections between your actions and each of the 5 steps previously mentioned.
In the beginning, help them verbalize and record their problems in a journal or on a sheet of paper. Make sure that their ideas are clear and concise and that they have listed some sort of goal that they have in mind. In order for students to be able to solve problems, they first must be able to identify the problem.
In situations where 2 or more students are having issues with one another, you can have them think about the problem they’re having. Ask them “What?” and “Why?” questions. Have THEM work through their issues and come up with possible solutions. Encouraging your kiddos to take an active role in the decision making process can be quite empowering.
Take your time… This is not something that will happen overnight! Students are going to need ample time to think, collaborate, come up with and test solutions, correct mistakes, and reflect. Begin with group discussions, then you can move on to small groups, peers, and eventually independent problem solving.  Don’t give up! Start small…
Ask questions and make suggestions, but be careful NOT TO TAKE CONTROL! Whenever a student comes up to you with a problem don’t give them the answer. (Trust me this is going to be hard at first! Instead try “What do you think?”, “Do you have any suggestions?”, “Tell me about this…”) Try encouraging them to ASK 3 BEFORE ME.  This will promote collaboration and problem solving.
It’s also important to nurture a safe learning environment where students feel their ideas are valued and respected. They should feel comfortable enough to share without fear of what others are going to think.
Now it’s time to put all of this into practice…

Saving Sam

The Orange Game
Source: Pinterest 
Marshmallow Challenge
Source: Pinterest

 

It’s your turn now, I’d love to hear about how you encourage your own kiddos to problem solve. Do you have any tips you’d like to share because I’d love to hear from you?

 

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