Raising problem solvers, not grades


The next time you are in a lesson, ask yourself how many questions you are asked that don’t really need to be asked. If the answer is too many, you are not alone. I often hear teachers complaining of the lack of initiative in their classes, having to explain simple common sense things, like where to write answers, should we start now, should we answer all of the questions, what do we do next? etc. etc. etc. I believe that such lack of initiative is indeed a modern phenomenon, a disease cultivated early in a world of standardized curricula and testing.


When students are herded and corralled into the narrow chute of standardized testing, they are so heavily indoctrinated with fear of failure that only a fool would dare venture off the beaten path. We are after all, talking about young people, and can hardly expect them to rebel against it (considering this may make you rethink those students who actually do). The consequences of straying are so fierce: the promise of no job; the shame of failure; the ire of the school. It is no wonder then that students are afraid to take risks and think for themselves, and why inevitably so many unnecessary questions are asked.


To add insult to injury, when governments decide in their wisdom that the solution to ensuring progress in education is to standardize testing even more, they force schools to constrict curricula further. They reduce the opportunities to explore creativity in subjects. They trim a course down to its quantitative shell, and by doing so reduce a student’s opportunities to develop problem-solving strategies. Essentially, they force schools to produce hydroponic students.


Hydroponic students

Whilst using hydroponics to grow fruit and vegetables seems like the golden ticket to solving the world’s food problems, the method, whilst yielding ostensibly larger and faster produce, is significantly flawed in three ways: firstly, the final product lacks real nutrient and substance, and ultimately taste. Secondly, the plant itself grows in a very unnatural and toxic state, absorbing inordinate quantities of chemicals and pesticides to control it at every turn, which must affect its overall enjoyment in growing, and thirdly, once the plant is gone and the process is over, it leaves no positive legacy – in fact, it depletes the ground around it. When students are taught in unnatural conditions, with the sole purpose of producing quantifiable results, they too suffer in three similar ways:


Firstly, when they finish their education with a whole lot of credentials, (if they have managed to get through the system), they may lack any real depth of knowledge and any ability to problem solve. This is because the learning has been too shallow, only concentrating on aspects of a course that need to be learnt for standardized testing. Like the roots of the hydroponic plant, the brain’s synapses aren’t encouraged to expand and strengthen because there isn’t any opportunity or need to do so. The more prescriptive the learning, the less chance the student has to wander off the path, and get dirty, and find solutions to get out of the mud. Necessity is the mother of invention, but when students aren’t ever given such chances, they lose the capacity to think on their feet, and eventually, to think for themselves in most situations.


Secondly, if students are encased day after day in the confines of the school building, seated for extraordinary long periods of time in rows of desks, and ushered from class to lunch to class under the strict timings of bells, the process of distancing the young from their natural condition is well underway. If students are doused with pointless and irrelevant information disguised as learning, it is obvious that they won’t enjoy school. Even well meaning teachers can fall foul to the system, themselves operating in fear of not covering the required territory.

In fact it’s an impossible feat to teach the amount of stipulated material of most subjects to any level of depth to the average class. To curb the natural inclination of students to disengage in such a learning context, schools superficially inoculate their students with countless tirades, warning against disengagement and punishing culprits in attempts to quell it. It is no wonder that students can feel that their paths in learning and growth have become stifled and one directional and oppressed. It is no wonder they rarely if ever connect learning with happiness.


Thirdly, because of the shallowness of the learning required for standardized tests, and the lack of base in the knowledge creation, the transference of the learning into new contexts is limited. The process yields little reward after the examination period, and does little to sustain the learner, or indeed the community around him or her. The student raised in the hothouse of standardized testing struggles to think outside the box, to solve new problems and ultimately flourish and contribute to a rapidly changing 21st century world. The emerging adult is certainly not going to bud and inspire the next generation. Rather s/he will depend upon and drain the world around it to keep it alive.


Start solving problems


To remedy the situation, and grow fruitful and happy students within the confines of the syllabus you are bound to, start to fix the problem yourself by creating an atmosphere of problem solving in your classes. Create situations where students have to think for themselves. Here are some ideas:


  • Work for the learning – Instead of telling students what the learning objective is for a task, have them come up with one when they’ve completed it. Make it the exit ticket.
  • Being resourceful is empowering – Instead of answering an unnecessary question, urge students to take back their power by taking another moment to think about the problem, then to check their books and other resources around them for the solution, before asking their table for help, before asking the teacher. Adam Schoenbart’s advice here is excellent: Ask 3B4ME
  • Scaffolds aren’t forever – Gradually reduce the scaffolds on tasks, increasing the amount of autonomy with the approach to a task. Explain that in the previous task you helped in this way, but that in this task you are not. This will make students connect previous experiences.
  • Exploit the creativity around you – Get students to solve the problem of satisfying the demands of the syllabus whilst making the learning interesting. Outline what must be covered, and challenge them to come up with interesting and creative ways to get it done. You could begin by looking at the whole course, and asking for suggestions about projects. The more adventurous could increase the challenge by asking – ‘here’s what must be done in this lesson – how can we achieve it’. Trust yourself that you can handle the change in direction, and that if a student comes up with a great way to get to the same place, then be brave enough to go with it. How you handle the change in direction is the best example of problem solving there is. Even if no one comes up with something this time, the process will not only stimulate their thinking to some degree, but also empower them to know that you are offering some autonomy in the learning. But the real gain in such a process is that students will begin the process of truly understanding the outcomes of the course. Then out of nowhere you are achieving the desired growth, but in an organic sustainable manner.
  • Review instructions – Teach students to return to instructions after they have completed some of the work. When students first view a task, they often only take in the first few components of the task, and then automatically ask what’s next once they’ve got to that point. Encourage the habit of revisiting the instructions, emphasizing to students that the brain is now able to process the next parts of the task.
  • Connecting learning – Get students to make connections between their learning more often. A great way to do this is to get students to go around the school and describe to another teacher or school leader the activity or activities involved, and ask them what they think the real world learning is for the task/s. The responses will make the student consider the relevancy a lot more, especially if the responder asks the student some questions.
  • Effective questioning – When questioning students, make it interactive. Get them on their toes when discussions ensue. Use Alez Quigley’s excellent suggestion of ABC Feedback to energise student interaction in lessons. Every question then becomes a chance to solve a problem.
  • Be the mirror – Redirect students’ questions back to them or to other students. This could have several possible outcomes: it provides more students with a chance to participate in a discussion; provides opportunities for students to teach; and will minimize the number of unnecessary questions, as students are by far the harshest critics of time wasting, especially when it’s theirs.
  • Confucius say – Ask questions that deliberately create thinking, such as Questions that create confusion are also winners – I guarantee someone in the class will respond and have a go at making sense of it. If played well (it can be a fine line at times), creating a space where the class is not able to assume what is presented to them is straight forward, or accurate, begins an unmistakable increase in student awareness, and brain activity. Examples include getting students to remember everything around the room they see that is the colour of white, and then, ensuring they don’t look up, get them to write down everything in the room that is the colour green; writing 4 random words on the board and getting students to rank them in order; add a word to board and have students design a question where the word is the only possible answer; adding deliberately wrong info within an activity and getting students to spot it; and of course, riddles – which every student seems to love.
  • How many fingers? – Teach students what Patch Adams had to learn: to focus on the solution rather than the problem in front of them. It’s incredible what a small change in perspective can achieve.
  • The best till last – above all else, ensure that you label the next unit you teach as a Problem-Solving Unit, and consistently refer to it as it unfolds. Explicitly discussing the problem solving aspects of each activity will develop and consolidate the expectations that your classroom demands. Students will thrive as a result!


Teaching is not about raising grades. Teaching should always be motivated by a need to create amazing people. Amazing people, by definition, are active sort of people, inspiring, creative and resilient. They are people who flourish in the right conditions, and who grow with challenge and inquiry. These qualities are not unique to a select group of people defined by hereditary. They are outcomes of having to consistently solve problems. Changing your classroom from a delivery room into a learning room relies entirely on your ability to change students from receptors to problem solvers. So let’s get to it, there’s not a moment to lose……