Developing A Problem Solving Strategy And The Reason It Is Important
William Ryan, in
Blaming the Victim
, defines power as the influence or control one has over ones life and environment. Power is an overriding human concern. What we can make happen by our own will and action significantly determines the quality of our existence. The absence of power causes apathy, fatalism, depression, and pessimism.
Developing confidence in how to solve problems, how to make known that which was unknown to you, may sound distant from any serious talk about power, but it isn’t. It is a crucial tool needed by young people as they struggle to get control of themselves and try to find a satisfactory way of functioning in society. It can help them earn confidence in themselves and their culture. We, as teachers, are being informed by testing
both at the state and national level that our students are weak, or lacking, in problem solving skills, We are continually being asked by administrators to stress the development of this skill. Much is being published in this area. A few practical suggestions for developing a problem solving teaching strategy follows.
In his article, “Students Can Learn to be Better Problem Solvers,” Arthur Whimbey
states that two characteristics which distinguish successful problem solvers from unsuccessful problem solvers are (1) a step-by-step approach and(2) carefulness. Research indicates that small discussion groups are helpful in developing these skills at all ability levels, but are crucial at the lower ability lever. Other suggestions from this article are to try to get other teachers in the school to stress accuracy and to cue parents in to some supportive ideas.
Continuing with the idea of small group discussions, an article in the New York Times
reported good results being accomplished under the guidance of teacher David Lazerson, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community School in Buffalo. “The Talmud teaches that if you don’t learn out loud with someone else, you’re not learning,” states Mr. Lazerson. This method of learning was supposedly given to Moses on Mount Sinai 3,000 years ago. It was used significantly in Mr. Lazerson’s education and he uses it in his teaching. Students, in pairs, learn by discussing out loud, and when a student becomes competent in a certain area, he is encouraged to tutor younger students. He has used this method successfully with LD students and in an inner-city school of 700 students.
The ideas of Reuven Feurstein’s instrumental enrichment seem worthy of mention here. He is concerned not with what students have learned, but how they learn and solve problems. He has devised a formal instruction program (Feurstein Instrumental Enrichment, or FIE, program) which identifies fourteen “instruments”, or skill areas in cognition. The first instrument in the curriculum is concerned with organizational skills. If a student has difficulty in this area, the teacher “mediates” with the instrument materials. The purpose of the FIE is “to change the cognitive structure of the retarded performer and to transform him into an autonomous, independent thinker, capable of initiating and elaborating ideas.”
His work indicates that learning ability can significantly improve at all ages. This method might offer help for some of our seemingly capable but not performing adolescents. Feurstein developed this method in Israel while trying to assess the cognitive ability of children coming from very diverse cultural backgrounds.
How To Solve It
is probably the most familiar book on problem solving. He divides problem solving into four areas: (1) understanding the problem which means one can answer such questions as “What is the unknown?, What are the data? What is the condition?”, (2) devising a plan possibly by using related problems from past experiences, (3) carrying out the plan of solution and checking each step and (4) looking back to check the results, check the reasoning and consider if there might be another way of doing it.
How can these ideas be integrated into a problem solving strategy that would be helpful in the everyday classroom? The ides of small group discussions and students helping each other learn are certainly not new techniques, but I have made very little use of them and am not aware of any of my colleagues doing so to any significant degree. For two students to learn by discussing the material out loud together might be relatively new to most of us and might possibly be extremely useful in certain situations. The technique, of talking things out with another person, is usually helpful in both clarifying ideas and increasing understanding wherever it is used. To develop a step-by-step approach and the habit of being careful would require using a step-by-step approach, such as Polya offers, and doing so very carefully, over and over, day after day, all through the year whenever it could naturally be used.
The Feurstein instruments attempt to map cognition and possibly could prove helpful, but they require considerable study on the part of the teacher. The strategy that seems to make most practical sense in working with problem solving is for the teacher to develop proficiency in using a step-by-step method and to use this method fairly consistently throughout all problem solving. Simultaneously, as the situation allows, one can try out the techniques of small discussion groups, student-teaching-student, and learning out loud in pairs.