Helping Kids Develop Problem-Solving Skills
by Victoria Wyatt
Children today are growing up in a world that poses great challenges. They will inherit an earth in peril and will have to tackle problems of enormous complexity. Action plans to deal with global problems such as climate change must accommodate different cultures, geographies, political systems, and economic circumstances.
At no time has it ever been more important for children to acquire problem-solving skills—skills that go far beyond the memorization rewarded by true-false and multiple-choice tests. This presents a challenge to parents; we are raising our children in a society that frequently rewards them for demonstrating knowledge of facts, but neglects teaching how to use those facts creatively and insightfully. Our society favours results that can be quantified; thus, testing measures that can easily be quantified (such as recall of facts) rather than creativity of thought. Dedicated teachers face large classes, underfunding, and pressure to prepare students for standardized provincial exams. An emphasis on memorization often pertains even in university-level courses; subjective evaluations such as essays become impractical as class sizes increase.
Memorizing facts for a test, though, often discourages complex thinking about information in a larger context, where all the interrelations of various pieces of the puzzle are examined. How does one write a multiple-choice question that allows a student to demonstrate an understanding of the intricacies of global warming? How does such a question encapsulate the complexities of the problem and the interrelationships between all components of the global environment?
Mass media echoes the same problem. Programs such as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader” reward contestants for recall of information rather than the use of information. Indeed, “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader” explicitly represents recall of facts as intelligence, when intelligence really means the ability to solve problems by putting knowledge to creative use.
Parents can counter such influences and help children learn problem-solving skills—a form of learning that goes far beyond recitation of facts. One way is to demonstrate problem-solving by “thinking aloud.” Consider walking with a preschooler past a woman standing on a ladder against her house. It may be immediately apparent to the adult what the woman is doing, but it isn’t necessarily apparent to the child. The adult can think aloud: “I wonder what the woman is doing on the ladder. Maybe she’s going to paint her house. If she were going to paint, though, I’d expect to see a bucket and some brushes, and I don’t. What else could she be doing? Maybe she’s going to clean her gutters or wash her windows....”
Literally, this “thinking aloud” demonstrates problem-solving. One can consider diverse reasons why the woman is on the ladder. Different “props” will make different explanations more or less likely. There are relationships between different props and the reason the woman is on the ladder.
One might be tempted to ask the child to guess what the woman is doing on the ladder, as a way of teaching problem-solving. In our society, it is common, normal and approved for adults to ask children questions to which the adult obviously knows the answer. This type of interaction becomes a quiz to get the “right answer”—the answer the adult seeks. This sort of quizzing is not a natural way to learn; it is also an artificial way of relating to other people. While many parenting books encourage parents to establish a quizzing type of relationship with their children, consider this: asking a toddler to point to the duck in the picture book or to name its colour does not teach or encourage thinking skills. Wondering aloud what the duck is about to do, and considering some possibilities, promotes an inquiring spirit.
The problems facing the world today demand an appreciation of problem-solving as well as the accumulation of facts. We do our children a service when we help them develop the skills to regard the world as an integrated, ever-changing whole—in short, to see dynamic interconnections as opportunities for understanding.
Victoria Wyatt, the mother of a teenage son and a preteen daughter, teaches History in Art at the University of Victoria.