5 ways to Unleash Problem Solvers in your classroom (Part 1)

This month’s issue of the ASCD Educational Leadership focused on the theme Unleashing Problem Solvers.   Each article showcases the incredible work people are doing in classrooms around the world and I’m finding this issue to be particularly inspiring so far.  I really wanted to reflect on these ideas and come up with some concrete things (and some baby steps) I can try in my own classroom.   I haven’t finished the magazine yet, so I plan on doing a follow up post after I experiement with some of these ideas and read additional articles in this issue!

Unleashing Problem Solvers

Q&A with Kiran Bir Sethi (p. 10) “Much of our focus is to get them to engage with life rather than remove life from their education” -Kiran Bir Sethi (@kiranbirsethi).  This quote really resonated with me.  Kiran founded a design-thinking-based school in India that promises to graduate citizen leaders through a curriculum that builds content knowledge and character.  The design thinking is based on Feel, Imagine, Do, and Share (FIDS).

Action Item #1:

  • Design thinking is a great way for students to systematically go through a task/problem to foster content knowledge and 21st-century skills.  There are several versions of design thinking which generally revolve around (1) understand the problem (2) develop possible solutions (3) prototype, test, refine (4) implement.  Getting students acclimated with this process will help develop problem-solving skills, resiliency, and creativity.  Try this out (especially with an open-ended question) and you will probably be amazed at what your students come up with.

Action Item #2:

  • Students need access to authentic tasks and converstion in the classroom.  Bring the real-world into the classroom.  Start small (use authentic contexts and wording regularly) and work up to having students occasionally tackle bigger real-world problems.  Can your students answer the questions: “when will I ever use this” and “why does this matter”??

Middle Schoolers Go Global (p. 12-18)  Mark Wise (@wisemancometh) and Jay McTighe (@jaymctighe) discussed the Global Challenge project which engages students in eight world challenges in weeklong interdisciplinary projects. A link to the full article with resources is here.  This encourages students to really investigate and tackle big real-world problems (ex: hunger, health, clean water) in the world in a way that allows students to pursue and develop personal interests and skills.  Students can participate in a pitch to panelists to try to get feedback and even funding for their proposals.  Mark Wise has created an incredible resource page to help get started.

Action Item #3:

  • Definitely check out the resources and project page that Mark Wise created.  (I would really love to collaborate with other teachers to do this project with students!!)
  • Is there a club  (ex. Model UN or a Debate Club) who could pilot this in your school?  Who are representatives in your school, community, and local businesses that could serve as mentors/coaches/judges to give feedback and possibly help students make their ideas a reality?
  • Is there a way to create something similar so that students can engage in interdisciplinary work to investigate and problem-solve in ways that directly relate to grade level content and standards on a smaller scale?
  • Something like 20% time or Genius Hour could also be a way for students to pursue questions about their school, community, and world.
  • Get into the habit of asking students to say what they observe and what they wonder about their school, community, and the world.  Use their innate motivations as inspiration for project ideas.

Inviting Uncertainty into the Classrom (p. 20-25)  Ronald Beghatto (@ronbeghetto) offered five strategies to help students respond well to uncertainty and foster complex problem-solving skills.  (1) Increase opportunitites for good uncertainity that provides necessary supports and structures for students to engage and find success in challenges.  (2) Choose one part of your lesson plan to “unplan” and let students take the lead in finding ways to problem solve without direct modeling.  (3) Increase student access to ill-defined problems that are filled with uncertainity and limited in formulas and pre-determined steps.  (4) Let students discover the backstories of those who were successful at problem solving through interviews/visits from local accomplished professionals in the community or researching the struggles of famous trail-blazers in history.  (5) Encourage students to engage with and begin never-ending projects that continue from year to year (legacy projects) to help the school and local community.  The full article can be found here.

Action Item #4:

  • Students need skills that go beyond memorization and procedures.  Try to incorporate one of Beghatto’s ideas into your classroom this week.  Students may need some help adjusting to this at first.  Help create a positive environment, encourage students to try something, offer encouragement (it’s okay to not succeed right away), and debrief with students afterwards to help identity important skills you hope they will use going forward.

Think Inside the Box (p. 38-42)  There’s a lot of talk in education right now about offering student choice, student choice, and increasing creativity and critical thinking in the classroom. John Spencer (@spencerideas) discussed the idea of creative constraint (barriers that force students to find new routes) as a key to problem solving.  Instead of offering students unlimited choices, materials, time, or resources, Spencer suggested actually setting limits to encourage students to tinker and innovate through their restrictive environment.  When students are given appropriate levels of challenge, limitations can force students to use divergent (spontaneous, non-linear) thinking that oftentimes, results in creative, long-lasting solutions.

Action Item #5:

  • Start by giving students limited resources for small unexpected things in class.  For example, Spencer recommended asking them to solve a math problem without a pencil or pen.  Or define a word without using words.  As students get used to operating under unexpected restrictions, try limiting a particular resource for a bigger project or assignment.  Often times, we let kids go with makerspace materials, etc – but restricting them to completing a task using only 5 items, for example, will force them to be very intentional, resourceful, and thoughtful about their work.  They may also find multiple uses for a single item that they hadn’t originally expected.  These are skills that will certainly prove helpful going forward!
  • Check out John Spencer’s Youtube Channel for some great Design Challenges!  Every time I try one out with students, there is a lot of creativity, great discussion, and even some laughter involved!


What are ways that you’ve successfully encouraged problem solving and creativity in your classroom?  What are obstacles you had to overcome to do so?

Please share your experiences with these ideas in the comment section or connect with me on twitter (@smithdianemarie)!


One thought on “5 ways to Unleash Problem Solvers in your classroom (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: 10 More Ways to Unleash Problem Solvers | Diane Marie Smith

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