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October 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 2

Problem Solving in Education: A Global Imperative

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Instructional Strategies
Do schools in Asia crush their students' spirits with rote learning? Is a relative strength of U.S. schools their ability to foster creativity and innovation? Does the dominance of the U.S. tech industry and the towering number of patents in the country suggest that U.S. schools are doing something right to help students excel at problem solving?
If you answer these questions in the affirmative, you have plenty of company. But there's a riddle here. In one recent evaluation by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), all of the top 8 rankings in problem solving were held by Asian jurisdictions, whereas U.S. students scored just slightly above average among the countries participating (OECD, 2012).
So, although U.S. schools produce many top innovators, they can clearly do better for many of their students in helping them compete for quality jobs in the future (National Academy of Sciences, 2010). The global economy is crying out for top talent in problem solving, and it would be unwise for Americans to assume that their system is inherently superior to the rest of the world in developing innovative workers. There may in fact be much that American school systems can learn from Asian systems in this regard.
The issue is not merely academic. Problem solving is a new global imperative of educational change (Shirley, 2016). We stand today on the edge of a true international renaissance, unlike anything ever achieved in history. New technologies, higher levels of education, better health care, increasing life expectancy, and the interdependence of our economies are bringing humanity together as never before. At the same time, the ancient curses of humanity—senseless war, environmental despoliation, poverty, and squandered human potential—endure today as ever before. These are problems that today's young people will increasingly face as they grow up. They need to learn how to solve real-world problems around them, whether global or local. Schools must prepare them for such challenges.

Pedagogical Shifts

Fortunately, there are examples, both in the United States and Asia, of the kinds of shifts in pedagogy schools need to make to focus more on students' complex problem-solving skills. We teach in Massachusetts and Singapore, respectively, both of which are top scorers on international large-scale assessments such as PISA and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). We examined strong examples of problem-solving curriculum units in each jurisdiction, and we found that although our cultures and economies are very different from one another, there are important points of convergence in these examples.
In Massachusetts, Boston College Professor Mike Barnett and a team of students and faculty worked with local schools and their students to address the endemic problem of "food deserts" in inner-city neighborhoods. These are communities where families suffer from a dearth of access to fresh produce.
What to do? Barnett and his team worked with inner-city youth on a hydroponics project in which they grow healthy produce and sell it for a profit in local food markets. Along the way, students learned about the basic biology and chemistry of hydroponics. They also learned engineering principles through designing hydroponic systems that take up a minimum of space and energy while yielding a maximum of produce. Finally, they learned about ways to use new technologies to access their hydroponics data from anywhere in the world and to share their research with others. Survey data show that participants developed far more positive attitudes toward science after participating in this form of problem-based learning (Patchen, Zhang, & Barnett, 2017).
More than 9,000 miles away, similar principles are at work in Singapore. At Jurong Secondary School, students worked on developing problem-solving skills in response to a concerned citizen's letter to the press about the impact of human activity on nearby Jurong Lake. Students learned how to work in research groups like professional scientists, measure water quality, improve heat dissipation in shelters around the park, search for relevant information using tablet computers, and share their findings with one another online (cited in Ng, 2017).
This kind of work isn't just happening in one school in Singapore. Many schools are doing similar projects, addressing a range of real-world problems. Indeed, the Ministry of Education now encourages all schools in Singapore, from vocationally oriented to academically demanding ones, to help their students apply the knowledge acquired in the classroom to authentic settings beyond school walls. Called the Applied Learning Program, this initiative contributes to a national strategy of curricula and pedagogical advancement called "Teach Less, Learn More" that has been promoted by the government since 2005 (Ng, 2017).
To further support innovative learning projects, the Singapore Ministry of Education has also made an effort to encourage innovation diffusion across schools, especially through the use of information technology. For example, some 200 Singapore schools have participated in what is known as the Digital Learning Trails project. Performance tasks embedded in the project involve the calculation of nutritional needs at a local supermarket or the discovery of culture and heritage at a local garden. Unlike the traditional classroom-based exercises, these tasks generally require students, often working in teams, to address problems for which they must apply their knowledge to tackle authentic issues, discovering new knowledge in the process. The students then communicate the results of their learning through mobile devices such as iPads or mobile phones, which allow collaborative student learning in a community across time and space. With the help of an educational technology company, this project has generated apps of its own that are used by many schools throughout Singapore today (Jamaludin & Hung, 2016).

Essential Lessons

So, what do these examples show us about problem solving? First, these projects make optimal use of the social purposes of schools to impress upon students their collective responsibilities and the capacities they have to contribute to the common good (for example, by providing food in disadvantaged areas or protection of the environment). This also means that students should learn problem solving as a team, not alone. But teamwork does not mean groupthink! Students can learn how to work with others to engage with different points of view held by their fellow learners. When it comes to problem solving, students need evidence, but they also need the freedom to interpret the evidence differently and to discuss why they think as they do.
Second, successful problem-solving projects involve identifying issues that are near at hand and then using these as the foundation for further inquiry. What topics most concern young people in their schools and communities? These issues can provide material for good curriculum development. Can you think of an issue similar to environmental concerns at Jurong Lake or inner-city food deserts in Massachusetts that your students could tackle? Better yet, perhaps you could encourage them to find and explore these issues themselves!
Third, firm academic content knowledge is a precondition to successful problem solving, not a distraction from it. Problem solving often requires in-depth knowledge across several disciplines. In the cases we have described, solid foundational scientific knowledge is essential. For example, Singapore students working in the Jurong Lake project had to learn the various heat-transfer processes in order to improve heat dissipation in the park shelters. They also had to learn separation techniques and qualitative analysis to test the water quality. The teachers provided students with some information and facilitated the students to find out more. In this way, students learned both content knowledge and the skills of learning, so that they might become self-directed learners. If your students tell you that they can't solve a given problem because they don't have enough content knowledge, they are probably right! Literacy skills, the character education entailed in serving the community, and familiarity with social media are also needed to inform the broader public about the issues at hand. The ultimate goal is to cultivate real, in-depth learning, not just the application of superficially acquired information.
Fourth, developing problem-solving skills requires a teaching and learning process in which speed in the acquisition of new knowledge is combined with respect for "slow thinking" (Kahneman, 2011). Time has to be built into lessons to let students look at issues from multiple points of view. Such examination can then lead to new solutions, rather than just one prescribed way. This is especially important in light of new research by Boston College professor Kate McNeill reveals a schism between the work of actual scientists and how science is taught in schools (McNeill et al., 2017). Scientists work in teams and thrive on spirited disagreements about procedures and evidence. But in schools, even when some teachers provide students opportunities to puzzle over evidence, McNeill has found that such dialogue often takes the form of "pseudo-argumentation" in which teachers lead students towards the pre-established right answer rather than really letting them explore evidence from multiple points of view.
Fifth, new digital technologies have become an essential way to disseminate the knowledge gained from problem-solving projects. It is not only important for educators to explore the possibilities afforded by these new technologies, it is also important for educators to humbly accept that today's students, as digital natives, often have skills that exceed their own (Prensky, 2012). So, as we teach our young people to solve problems, let's also appreciate what our students have to teach us about new technologies and be keen to learn from them when their digital knowledge surpasses ours.

Leadership Challenges and Opportunities

Be forewarned: If you are serious about helping your students develop problem-solving skills, your work as an educational leader will become harder, not easier! You will have to help teachers to understand that although the integrity of their disciplines matters, they also need to come out of their isolation to develop more interdisciplinary lesson plans. You will have to help students who are anxious about getting the right answer to slow down and improve their skills in the observation of scientific phenomena and social problems. To do these things, you need to be a genuine instructional leader and not just an administrator. In this connection, you can take a leaf out of Singapore's book. Singapore provides all of its teachers with support for 100 hours of professional development each year. Teachers in every school are engaged in professional learning communities and many communities collaborate across schools. It's hard to imagine teachers taking on the challenge of teaching problem solving throughout a system without such strong support from their school leaders.
Whether in the United States or Singapore, by injecting problem-solving skills and learning units into curricula, we can help our students see that they can start solving real-world problems now, and not only after their school education is completed. We can show them that it is possible for their schools to be places where they experience meaning and purpose, where their goals are greater than themselves or their test results. Isn't this a great legacy for us to leave as educators?

Jamaludin, A., & Hung, D. W. L. (2016). Digital "learning trails": Scaling technology-facilitated curricular innovation in schools with a rhizomatic lens. Journal of Educational Change, 17(3), 355–377.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux.

National Academy of Sciences. (2010). Rising above the gathering storm, revisited: Rapidly approaching category 5. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

McNeill, K. L., González-Howard, M., Katsh-Singer, R., & Loper, S. (2017). Moving beyond pseudoargumentation: Teachers' enactments of an educative science curriculum focused on argumentation. Science Education, 101(3), 426–457.

Ng, P. T. (2017). Learning from Singapore: The power of paradoxes. New York: Routledge.

OECD. (2012). PISA 2012 results: Creative problem solving. Paris: OECD.

Patchen, A. K., Zhang, L., & Barnett, M. (2017). Growing plants and scientists: Fostering positive attitudes toward science among all participants in an afterschool hydroponics program. Journal of Science and Educational Technology, 26(3), 279–294.

Prensky, M. R. (2012). From digital natives to digital wisdom: Hopeful essays for 21st century learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Shirley, D. (2016). The new imperatives of educational change: Achievement with integrity. New York: Routledge.

End Notes

1 Read more about the Jurong Secondary School project.

 Dennis Shirley is Duganne Faculty Fellow and professor of education at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College. Shirley has led and advised many educational change initiatives. He was the principal investigator of the Massachusetts Coalition for Teacher Quality and Student Achievement, a federally funded improvement network that united 18 urban schools, 7 higher education institutions, and 16 community-based organizations.

He has conducted in-depth studies about school innovations in England, Germany, Canada, and South Korea. Shirley has been a visiting professor at Harvard University in the United States, Venice International University in Italy, the National Institute of Education in Singapore, the University of Barcelona in Spain, and the University of Stavanger in Norway. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Shirley’s previous book is The New Imperatives of Educational Change: Achievement with Integrity.

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