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October 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 2

Advisory

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Instructional Strategies

Research Alert

The Music of Problem Solving

Whether learning to play a complex concerto or deciding how to spend money, humans use the same frameworks to solve problems, a recent study from the Journal of Music Teacher Education shows.
Researcher Rebecca A. Roesler identified five components of problem solving by observing 49 video-recorded lessons taught by six renowned instrumental teachers. She noted each time problem solving occurred during the lessons; whether it was initiated by the teacher, the student, or a combination of both; and how the problem was solved.
The five components Roesler noted—establishing goals, evaluating performance, conceiving and considering options, generalizing and applying principles, and deciding and acting—were then compared to independent studies of problem-solving components in other areas, from the way infants learn to eat to how diabetic patients respond to a glucose monitor. The results were very similar, suggesting that problem solving is a universal human trait and that people use the same processes no matter what the problem is.
Roesler suggests that training teachers on these five components and guiding them through each one can improve classroom instruction and student learning. For example, she says, "One teacher may be excellent at evaluating but lack the knowledge of principles and options that lead to successful decision-making." But if trained on each component, teachers can get better at identifying problems and providing sound advice to solve them.
"Toward Solving the Problem of Problem Solving: An Analysis Framework" is available.

Screen Grab

Problem Solving and the Brain

Each day, we solve a range of problems—from remembering our email passwords to deciding what makes us happiest. Can you articulate the processes behind these problem-solving skills—and can you relay those processes to your students? Khan Academy's cognition series features a five-minute video titled "Problem Solving" that showcases different types of problems we face and common approaches to solving them. Featuring hand-drawn sketch animation, the video takes viewers through complex workings of the brain with an easy-to-follow narration. Find this video and others in the cognition series here.

School Tools

Teachers as Design Thinkers

The Teacher's Guild has a lofty but admirable goal: to "bring teachers together to solve 30 of the biggest challenges in education today." This online community, which is run by a team of educators and designers from IDEO's Design for Learning Studio and New York's Riverdale Country School, offers a free toolkit on how to implement design thinking in the classroom, as well as a robust online space where teachers collaborate on major issues, such as personalizing learning and redesigning parent-teacher conferences. For each challenge, teachers submit their best ideas and inspirations, and the community offers feedback to refine those ideas. To join the collaborations, visit the website.

Turn and Talk

Q&A

with Kiran Bir Sethi, Founder of the Riverside School, a Design Thinking-Based School in Ahmedabad, India
What led you to create the Riverside School?
When my son was around six, he had a really bleak experience at school. He came home upset one day because his teacher had put a big red line across his homework and he didn't know why. Apparently, he had failed to memorize and write an essay verbatim as instructed. I decided we needed a different approach to education. So I took him out of school, and my journey to setting up the Riverside began. My background as a designer served me well. The mindset of a designer is that we are not helpless and we can drive change.
How would you describe the curriculum?
When I started the school in 2001, I instinctively put design thinking at the core of the school. So the curriculum is built around the lab idea, with developing problem solving and creative confidence at the core. It is now also directly aligned to the vision of the school, which promises to graduate every student as a citizen leader—someone who possesses creative competence as well as compassion. So we have a timetable for developing citizen leadership—including extended real-life problem solving and experiential projects that build both content knowledge and character.
Design thinking is an important part of your instructional approach. Why is it so central?
Unlike other approaches in education where the focus has been so much on the "What" and the "How," I believe that design thinking puts the "Who" and the "Why" front and center. So learning based on design thinking becomes an intentional act—both for teachers and students. Student learning is not left to chance. And students themselves learn to work through problems in a way that is deliberate and empathetic, always keeping the user at the center.
What is the Design for Change challenge?
Design for Change evolved from a national challenge I initiated for school children to change some aspect of their communities. The challenge spurred students to solve real-life problems in their immediate environment, while building a sense of empathy, confidence, and responsibility. The idea developed into a curriculum that is now offered in schools in more than 50 countries. It's based on a simple design thinking toolset of Feel, Imagine, Do, and Share (FIDS for Kids). This process gives students an opportunity to become aware of the world around them, believe that they play a role in shaping the world, and then take an action toward a more desirable and sustainable future.
By reports, Riverside's students perform very well on standardized academic assessments. Why do you think that's so?
I believe that the reason why they perform extremely well is because we flipped the focus. We say that when children do good, they do well. In doing good, they have to develop their social capabilities and skills. Much of our focus is to get them to engage with life rather than remove life from their education. In doing that, children are required to lift their game. They are reading more, they are writing more, they are speaking more, they are experiencing more, and all of that results in heightened development of academic skills.
Do you have any advice to offer other educators on improving student learning?
One insight I'd share is to try to keep faith in the idea of "It is possible." At Riverside, a question we constantly ask ourselves and that every educator should ask is, "If it is possible, then why are we not doing it?" and, "If we can do it, why are we not doing it today?"
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Numbers of Note

Girls and STEM

22% of female 11th grade students report enrolling in an advanced science class (compared with 18.2% of males).
Of students enrolled in AP Computer Science A, 19% are female and 81% are male.
Only 29% of employees in the U.S. science and engineering workforce are female (although women make up 1/2 of the total U.S. college-educated workforce).
Source: National Science Board. (2016). Science and Engineering Indicators 2016. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

EL Study Guide: Problems of Practice

How can educators effectively integrate authentic problem solving into the classroom? How can problem-solving projects be used to build on, rather than skirt, content knowledge? What shifts in practice and expectations do teachers need to make? Explore these and other essential questions from this issue in our EL Study Guide, designed for use in professional learning communities or personal reflection.

Relevant Read

Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers
by Nat Greene (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, April 2017)
Call them sticky problems, Gordian knots, or just unsolvable, the hardest problems are those for which a detailed manual or step-by-step problem-solving method doesn't help. Think of the leak no plumber can diagnose or the blueprint an architect just can't get right using AutoCAD—or even why two countries won't stop warring.
Industrial engineer Nat Greene details nine behaviors great problem solvers use for such "impossible" challenges. Although many of his anecdotes involve technical problems (like a loose bolt that makes a machine freeze up), these practices could work with any academic or life challenge.
Conventional problem-solving approaches fail with "impossible" problems, Greene says, because they rely on guessing what's causing the glitch, then trying many responses until one works. Much better is "smelling the problem"—looking closely at the symptoms and rigorously identifying what's going wrong before you start acting. Vague problem statements (like "the toilet is leaky") don't help a problem solver know where to start. Precise statements ("The toilet is leaking water from this area") do. To avoid frustration and idle time, educators might do well to introduce students to these practices for complex problem solving.

Page Turner

"In the past, many of us tried to protect our students from failure, especially in math class. As a result, generations of students have learned to give up when a problem gets hard." —Cathy L. Seeley

EL’s experienced team of writers and editors produces Educational Leadership magazine, an award-winning publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators and leaders each year. Our work directly supports the mission of ASCD: To empower educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. 

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