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The problem with “problem solving”

By August 4, 2009June 14th, 20163 Comments

There is a big difference between generating and testing hypotheses – problem solving and doing practice problems. The difference lies in the level of critical thinking required. These two instructional strategies are often confused by instructional leaders. This isn’t surprising since most text books rarely differentiate between the two.

When we train school leaders to conduct walkthroughs with McREL’s Power Walkthrough software, we make sure they can distinguish between the two. Let’s look at an example of this distinction. We might walk into a classroom and see students quietly completed a worksheet that asks them to find and correct ten “problems” with grammatical errors. These are language arts practice problems. On the other hand, students could be contemplating possible solutions to a community problem such as homelessness in Miami. In this second example, students would be using the problem solving process to define the problem, analyze and hypothesize multiple solutions, weigh these solutions against each other, and plan for action.

I am not implying that it is not worthwhile for students to do practice problems. Practice is important for building the foundational skills students need. Nonetheless, if we want students to think critically, we cannot be satisfied with just doing practice problems. We have to build upon the foundations laid by them by providing students opportunities to analyze, evaluate, and create through problem solving. Do you have an innovative example of generating and testing hypotheses – problem solving? If so, share it with us in a reply to this posting.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Robert Wilmetti says:

    I wonder what some effective motivating strategies are to get students to really engage with a problem.

  • Esther says:

    I do have an example. I work with small groups of ELL students on their comprehension, as defined by the DRA2. They need to be able to predict the contents of new texts and then confirm or deny their prediction based on the newly read information in the book.
    My observations of the students learning are as follows:
    1. Many students are scared/unable to make a prediction because they are continually searching for the “right” answer. (This is 99% of their school day.)
    2. It takes some time and consistency on my part for the student to trust that it is okay for the prediction to be wrong or silly or whatever and this is the first step for them as free their minds.
    3. The prediction itself later (I work with k-3) turns into the same mental mechanism that works for hypothesis and experiment. This mental mechanism has to be developed through process, not searching for “right” answers.
    4. As they become more sophisticated, we evaluate the evidence that went into the prediction, why did they predict this and not that? What led them to their prediction? What clues did they use?
    5. As evidence becomes a part of predicting, we can also use this mental mechanism to make and support opinions….
    6. Each of the above become the basis for academic work–science and the persuasive essay. It is encouraging children to take an intellectual risk… something we all hope they would do naturally. They may do it naturally, but in school, as teachers, we have to pay attention because for many, if not most, it isn’t happening at all.
    7. I am not suggesting that schools be remade into “discovery” zones. There are many times when the right answer, and finding the right answer is appropriate. I am saying that we have to carefully construct breathing room for students to develop the mental mechanisms that allow them to generate and test hypothesis, or confirm or deny predictions…
    Your thought?
    Your thoughts?

  • Matt Kuhn says:

    Wow Esther! You described an really great example. You have all the essential parts included – prediction, analyzing multiple solution possibilities, and creative thinking. Thank you.

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