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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How the Common Core Standards Tackle Problem Solving

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

When the word creativity is used, the left side of my head begins to hurt. Now why would that happen? Let's see, could be the years of exposure to right and left brain mumbo jumbo?

If you want to see some interesting things about the brain, there is a course on iTunes U from the University of Arizona, called Visualizing Human Thought. It shows that even though a man had nearly his entire left hemisphere destroyed by a stroke, including the comprehension (Wernike's area) and speech center (Broca's area), he can still communicate. How did this happen? Well, the brain adapted and found a way to use another part of the brain to take over the job (it is an enthralling story). Anyway, the whole point of mentioning this is that thinking, in this case creatively problem solving, is a whole-brain activity.

The thread of literacy found in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) suggests a way to get to the heart of problem solving. When you say that someone is literate, you are not saying that they know how to read; you are saying that they are well read or have read a lot. And not only that but the assumption is that they have acquired the knowledge gained from reading (it is part of them and it is used both to support and to contradict what this literate person believes or doesn't believe). A literate person therefore has evidence to bolster and base beliefs upon and ammunition to argue against other beliefs. As the CCSS explain in the Appendix A, this is more than simple persuasion. The argument must be compelling, believable and irrefutable.

A problem solved must be compelling enough to need a solution. The solution to a problem must be believable, plausible, and doable. An effective solution to a problem is irrefutable because it works! I have used the word solution, and my favorite fifth grade class chants a definition to that word that makes sense: a mixture of two or more compounds that cannot be easily separated. With that definition, the solution to a problem should be so integrated (like the brain) that the parts and pieces are not easily separated -- it is unified or integrated.

An Example

My lawnmower quit working. Ok it wasn't working well in the first place, but it now doesn't work at all. No amount of coaxing or yanking would make it start. So I checked everything; the oil was ok, the spark plug was ok, the filter was fine. By process of elimination, it had to be the carburetor. Sure enough, the seal on the carburetor had deteriorated and was allowing air to get in and eliminating the vacuum suction so the gas would flow. It also made the gas in the tank drip out all over the lawnmower, which is something I should have noticed from the start. The problem was that it is an old mower, and I did not want to spend the day trying to find the right seal when I could be mowing the lawn and doing other things instead.

How did I solve it? I started by looking for suitable replacements; gaskets left over from other projects. They were all too small or the wrong shape. Then I looked for plastic or rubber things that were shaped in the right size. I found a couple of things. Wouldn't you know it that I had an old rubber carpet protector for sofa legs that was exactly the right size and shape, only it was not a washer, it was a solid piece of rubber. Then I asked myself the question, "What if..." and I pulled out my pocketknife and whittled out the center. Jiminy Cricket, it fits! And then I mowed the lawn.

The problem needed to be solved, the grass was too high, the fix was dubious but doable, and the results were irrefutable. And the argument won the day that the junk in my garage is useful. That is, until my wife pointed out that if I hadn't been so cheap and purchased a better lawn mower, I wouldn't need the junk. (That's a problem, or argument, for another day.)

How do you get your students to solve problems?

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

We use a common problem solving strategy that helps kids organize their thinking and breaks down complex problems. The process called SCAN (See the issues, Clarify the Issues, Ask What's Important, and Now, name your next steps) was developed by Kepner-Tregoe and has been used for years by many prominent businesses (NASA, Harley-Davidson, etc). We have made SCAN a part of our writing, social studies, science and health programs. TregoED, a nonprofit, whose mission is to get these problem solving and decision making skills into education, has developed a discussion platform with problem based scenarios and the strategy built right in. There are some great free lessons found at www.tregoed.org. I write regularly on getting kids thinking and problem solving on my blog at http://scan-werecriticaltothinking.blogspot.com/.

Jamie W.'s picture

I was curious about how problem-solving techniques were incorporated in The Common Core State Standards for high school Finance and Economics classes. However, I could not locate those disciplines in the CCSS.

Douglas D. Fox's picture
Douglas D. Fox
Theater, Media, Journalism, English teacher: St. Pauls High School, NC

This thought process is the normal mode of operation for those in the arts, especially in the theatrical arts where anything and everything can (and will) be re-purposed to put the show on.

The arts consistently operate at the top of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy: CREATE! Usually with the added requirement to it on a budget of near zero and with just the "stuff" at hand.

And despite the many studies that have shown and continue to show that engagement in the arts lifts scores of all students, all we hear about in education is STEM.

Analogy: would you give the lady in your life (or would you as the lady like to receive) a dozen "stems" or do you give/want a dozen long-stem roses?

Well, duh -- the roses of course.

But our current emphasis on STEM instead of STEA(rts)M is just that -- the stems but not the roses.

The Edsel solved the problem of providing transportation -- but in such an artless way it was a total flop. That is but one example of how divorcing the problem-solving techniques and thought processes inherent in creating art from the problem-solving techniques of STEM leads to "flops."

Consider also that much of what we know of ancient cultures stems from their works of art -- in fact some of the earliest being cave paintings -- and it is obvious that artistic expression in many varied forms is an inherent characteristic of human existence. Yet our educational system denigrates their value and sidelines them as too soft and untestable and therefore of little to know value. Others claim they are too elitist, when in fact there is an art form for everyone -- it just lots of experimenting (often messy) to find the one that gives expression to the soul within.

Until the Common Core standards recognize the intrinsic value of the arts to promote thought and problem solving we'll be stuck with a bunch of stems who can little more than regurgitate information on standardized tests. (yet another discussion for how they destroy high-order thinking and problem solving skills).

Lynn Sweatte's picture

I love your concept of starting with a problem and asking students to solve it - it's my preferred method of instruction. In my opinion, CCS does NOT contribute to that end. As a military wife, I have taught every grade K-12 except 5th, in many different states. Especially where math standards are concerned, I am very frustrated with the time and money spent on "developing, selling and implementing" CCS when viable, measurable, national math standards have existed for years. In my opinion, states no longer care about what students know, understand and can do, they are more concerned with how they look on one multiple-choice standardized test given one time per year. The problems with student performance exists in the actual instructional methods and generating specific problem solving activities for students that are ability appropriate, pertinent to the standards AND of interest to the teacher so that he/she may effectively implement them. The state I'm in now (and for the last 10 years) seems to think they are doing me a favor by forcing me to explore/unpack these standards (on my own/unpaid time) instead of "giving me time" or allowing me to use those ability-appropriate, scientific inquiry/problem solving strategies that will hook students and engage them in the lessons. Since I have been in this state, I have not been trusted to know and teach the students in my class the content necessary to help them progress to the next level. I have been expected to teach the state's standards the way the state mandates, in the order the state mandates but I'm being held accountable for the mastery that occurs. I'm guessing this situation is not unique to the state I'm currently living in. I know we have some teachers who are not professionals doing their jobs, but I feel the majority of us are and wish we were allowed to do so again.

John Dacey's picture

Only one problem -- How do "...the Common Core Standards Tackle Problem Solving"?

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