Tips & Tricks

How to Create a Culture of Problem Solvers

For the past few years, I’ve noticed that many of my 3rd graders start off the year with few to any problem solving skills. If they have a problem with a classmate, they come to me in hopes of a solution. If they’ve forgotten their pencil at home, they also come to me. If they are stuck on a math problem, rather than try various solutions, they raise their hand in frustration and are quick to share “I don’t get it!”
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, then no worries… I’m here to share with you a few tips that can help you create a culture of problem solvers! Once you’ve established this culture within your class, gone are the days of a zillion questions. Students will begin turning to their peers or even themselves to solve problems. Your job will be to encourage them to take risks, solve problems, and work with partners to find solutions. Pretty amazing, huh?

Ok, so let’s dive right into it…

The problem solving approach 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. This aproach encourages flexibility, perseverance, resourcefulness, and common sense rather than relying on adults or others to tell them what to do. The main premise behind this approach is that students need to learn to figure out their problems, make hypothesis, test out their ideas, adjust their thinking, collaborate with others, and take risks. Does this sound familiar? 
(The words S-C-I-E-N-T-I-F-I-C  M-E-T-H-O-D comes to mind.) 

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 their problem statement. It is important that this be clear and specific.

 How will I complete my homework on nights that I have baseball practice?

Students need to be able to describe what might be preventing them from reaching their goal. Identifying barriers now, will help them when they have to come up with possible solutions.

When I come home from baseball practice I have to shower and eat dinner. Then I’m too tired to do homework. Exhaustion and nightly routines might prevent me from completing homework at this time.

Students need to 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 students to have a backup plan in case their initial ideas do not work. 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 trivial… If you think it, write it down I say.

Brainstorm: 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…

Students need to test their solutions and if their first idea doesn’t work, they need to try something else. Remind them that mistakes are part of the learning process and that it is 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 is a step that students will struggle with. In the beginning you will see them throwing in the towel when their first idea does not succeed. This is your moment to encourage them, motivate them, and remind them that this is all part of the process.)

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 might have done differently. Do NOT skip this step or rush through it! This is where much of the learning will take place.

If you’d like a FREE copy of my problem solving posters simply click on the images below.  I’ve also included a recording sheet where students can record their responses.

Now that we understand the problem solving approach a little bit better, let’s talk about some tips that I’ve learned along the way…
Teach problem solving skills in ALL areas! This skill can be applied in math, science, reading, social situations, etc… Let your students see this and 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, in the workforce, 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 may be currently facing.
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.
Help students 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 what the problem is. And although this sounds easy, it is actually a difficult task. I recommend that in situations where 2 or more students are having issues with one another, that you use this opportunity to have them think about what their problem is. You can begin by asking students “What?” and “Why?” questions. Have THEM work through their own problem and come up with possible solutions. Encouraging students 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 whole class through group discussions where you model each of the 5 steps along the way. 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. Have students ask their peers when they have a question. This will promote collaboration and problem solving. 
Our role as teacher is to support our students and to encourage questioning and deep thinking. We must demonstrate to our kids that it is okay to make mistakes and that we believe that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process.  Mistakes are useful and should not be discouraged! We should also aim to create a culture in our classroom in which everyone’s ideas are valued and respected. We are to foster collaboration and open discussions in which students feel comfortable enough to share their ideas and opinions freely.
Now it’s time to put all of this into practice…

Saving Sam

Source: Pinterest
The Orange Game
Source: Pinterest 
Marshmallow Challenge
Source: Pinterest

It’s your turn… I’d love to hear your thoughts on problem solving in the classroom. Do you currently promote problem solving with your students? Comment below with some of your experiences.

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  • Reply
    Edwina Whiteside
    May 25, 2018 at 11:32 pm

    I love this lesson. Thank you so much for doing all the hard work for me.

    • Reply
      June 28, 2018 at 11:39 am

      You’re quite welcome Edwina!!! Happy to help :0)

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