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Problem-solving is one of the 21st Century skills that we believe is important for students to learn.  However, there is considerable debate about whether problem-solving is a “20th Century skill that is merely being repackaged in the 21st Century conversation?”  Some questions to consider: (1) how should we go about effectively teaching problem-solving skills in the classroom; and (2) are the skills needed to solve problems in algebra the same skills people need to solve complex problems like the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan?

In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink argues that the workplace in the 21st Century will require a new type of individual.  Pink writes that we are

…moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age [Pink, 2005, p. 33].

He argues that the workplace is changing as a result of three factors–Asia, abundance, automation-and that to remain competitive workers, and therefore students, will need new skills.  Pink advocates for an adjustment to more right-brain thinking and skill development-nonlinear, intuitive, and systems thinking.  He promotes a balance between left-brain, logical and linear thought processes, and right-brain thinking.

United States Department of Labor has an interesting website, Working in the 21st Century.  This site illustrates the type of workers and skills needed for the 21st Century.  Employers often identify problem-solving as an essential skill when hiring college grads for jobs in the 21st Century.  In schools, we feel the pressure to help students develop the ability to apply problem-solving skills in the face of challenging problems we now see across the globe.  We also know from neuroscience research that the use of problem-solving skills improves learning.

Daniel Pink wrote on his website “tricks” for solving problems.  Here were his three suggestions:

  1. Trade problems with someone. When you get stuck, stop hammering away at the problem and find a colleague to swap with.
  2. Solve problems on behalf of someone else. Create some psychological distance from your project by pretending that you’re doing it on behalf of someone else. Use your imagination here: the “other person” could be the woman across the hall, a relative, or a stranger halfway across the world. The farther away, the better.
  3. Put some distance between yourself and your project. Writers know something magical happens when you put your manuscript away in a drawer. When you come back to it a week or a month or six months later, you have a fresher, more creative perspective on the work. When you can, build some slack into your deadlines and try putting your work out of sight for as long as you can manage.

Pink quotes some studies that shed light on the value of sharing problems or collaborating on solving problems.

Recent research by Evan Polman of NYU and Kyle J. Emich of Cornell may shed some light on why. In three sets of experiments, they found that when people solved problems on behalf of others, they produced faster and more creative solutions than they did when they solved the same problems for themselves.

Chuck House from Stanford University points out in his five-minute You Tube interview with Knowledge Works Foundation that the 21st Century workplace requires that people be good problem-solvers, innovative thinkers, and collaborators.


Another interesting source on critical and creative thinking, two skills important in effective problem-solving, is a book by Scott Isaksen and Donald Treffinger entitled, Creative Problem Solving: The Basic Course, describes both critical thinking and creative thinking.  In their work, they use a six-stage problem-solving process that is worth considering.  Here are their six stages:

  1. Mess Finding: We have to identify and acknowledge this first before we can proceed.
  2. Data Finding: Once the general mess is defined, the next stage involves “taking stock”–unearthing and collecting information, knowledge, facts, feelings, opinions, and thoughts to sort out and clarify your mess more specifically.
  3. Problem Finding: Now that your data is collected, you need to formulate a “problem statement” that expresses the “heart” of the situation.
  4. Idea Finding: This is the state in which you brainstorm as many ideas or alternatives as possible for dealing with your problem statement.
  5. Solution Finding: Now that you have a number of ideas that can serve as possible solutions to your problem.
  6. Acceptance Finding: Having decided upon a solution, it’s time to formulate a plan of action to implement your solution. Determine what kind of help you’ll need, what obstacles or difficulties might get in the way, and what specific short- and long-term steps you are going to take to rid yourself of that original mess!

The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University offers some suggestions on how to teach problem-solving skills effectively.  They focus on four areas:

  1. Communicate
  2. Encourage independence
  3. Be sensitive
  4. Encourage thoroughness and independence

So putting it all together, I think there is a pattern in these resources.  First, collaboration and sharing of problems is an important piece of the puzzle.  When we try to problem-solve in isolation we often hit roadblocks that keep us from using our creative and critical thinking skills efficiently to solve a problem.  “Putting distance between yourself and the project (problem)” could be helpful.  There is a process to follow in effective problem solving.  Whether Isaken and Treffinger’s six-stage process is the right one is not important, but that there are stages is something teachers should pay close attention to.  I happen to like their six-stage process.  Second, students need to be able to communicate how they understand problems, as well as how they are going about solving them.  While they are engaged in the process, teachers need to be sensitive and encourage a thoughtful engagement in the process, not worrying so much about the final outcome.

I love this quote on the Center for Teaching’s website on problem-solving:

Experts (teachers) in a particular field are often so fluent in solving problems from that field that they can find it difficult to articulate the problem solving principles and strategies they use to novices (students) in their field because these principles and strategies are second nature to the expert. To teach students problem solving skills, a teacher should be aware of principles and strategies of good problem solving in his or her discipline.

We need to help students identify their own problem-solving errors and develop the patience they will need as they delve into more complex “real life” problems.

What are your thoughts?  What do you see as the challenges we face in teaching effective problem-solving?

4 comments on “Problem-solving in the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: “What did I do that helped students learn?” « Center for Teaching

  2. Pingback: Universal Skills All Learners Should Know How to Do | User Generated Education

  3. Pingback: Necessary Skills for the 21st Century Student | Dr. Dan Pezzulo

  4. Pingback: Habilitats/competències bàsiques universals per a aprendre | Donem-li la volta

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