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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?

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