I am helping run a small professional development group at my school this year. The key parts of the proposal I wrote are:
How and where in our current curricula do we explicitly and implicitly teach problem solving skills? How can we as teachers help students to become problem solvers and not simply teach them to solve problems.
Further describe your project proposal including what kind of research you will incorporate into your project:
In both mathematics and the sciences, problem solving is a crucial skill – one that forms the backbone of what it is to do professional work in these fields. Problem solving is not the same as solving problems. We believe that what most mathematics courses, and some science courses, at our school engage in is solving problems.
A student is liable to think – as even some of our most advanced seniors do – that mathematicians sit in a room all day inventing theorems and problems out of nothing, and that chemists and physicists work in laboratories producing unambiguous data which lead to the Great Discoveries. In fact, most of the work done in fields as sterile as combinatorics or as messy as molecular biology involves navigating corridors of inquiry, trying (and often failing) to draw connections, and coming up with new lenses with which to look at problems. Frustration and dead ends are part and parcel of working in these fields. Those who work in math and science based fields have honed their problem solving intuition over time. The question we have to ask ourselves is: how do we hone intuition? Problem solving is about asking questions and finding ways to answer them, and then taking the questions one step further. Solving problems, on the other hand, is applying a known method to a problem that has already been solved before. Both involve thinking, but one involves deep thought. We can’t help but hear the first line of our new mission statement whispering in the background of this proposal.
I’ve been thinking about these issues since my first year of teaching. Earlier this year, Justin Tolentino wrote a post that struck a nerve (as you can see from my comment) about my frustration about not knowing how to teach problem solving. Just today, Glenn Kenyon twittered an article he recently published on problem solving. Jim Wysocki has been teaching with a problem based curriculum and blogging about it. And if you think about it, Dan Meyer’s What Can You Do With This (WCYDWT) series is, in many senses, a concrete place to start addressing the issue of problem solving in a curriculum.
Of course the question of how to teach problem solving still remains elusive to me.
So with this post, and knowing that I have this professional development group, I’d love for anyone and everyone to throw down in the comments:
- How you actually go about, on the ground, teach problem solving? What do those minutes look like? What are you doing? What are the kids doing? How do you decide what to say and what not to say? How regularly do you engage in this sort of activity?
- If you do feel you teach problem solving effectively, what three pieces of advice would you give to a teacher who is starting to do it in his/her classroom so that it goes smoothly?
- If you have tried to teach problem solving and failed, what did you do and how did it fail? (Why do you think it failed?)
- Useful resources of any kind (books, websites, blog posts, etc.).
- Anything else you want to say about problem solving.
Thanks for all your help!
PS. And yes, my friends, all of our professional development group is reading G. Polya’s How to Solve It. As I’m working through it, I am so enamored with so much of what he says that I have every fifth line underlined. Those books are rare in my life.