As an educator for over 20 years, I’ve heard a lot about critical thinking, problem-solving, and inquiry and how they foster student engagement. However, I’ve also seen students draw a blank when they’re given a problem to solve. This happens when the problem is too vast for them to develop a solution or they don’t think the situation is problematic.
As I’ve tried, failed, and tried again to engage my students in critical thinking, problem-solving, and inquiry, I’ve experienced greater engagement when I allow them to problem-find, problem-shape, and problem-solve. This shift in perspective has helped my students take direct ownership over their learning.
Encourage Students to Find the Problem
When students ask a question that prompts their curiosity, it motivates them to seek out an answer. This answer often highlights a problem.
For example, I gave my grade 11 students a list of topics to explore, and they signed up for a topic that they were interested in. From that, they had to develop a research question. This allowed them to narrow the topic down to what they were specifically curious about.
Developing a research question initiated the research process. Students launched into reading information from reliable sources including Britannica, Newsela, and EBSCOhost. Through the reading process, they were able to access information so that they could attempt to find an answer to their question.
The nature of a good question is that there isn’t an “answer.” Instead, there are a variety of answers. This allowed students to feel safe in sharing their answers because they couldn’t be “wrong.” If they had reliable, peer-reviewed academic research to support their answer, they were “right.”
Shaping a Problem Makes Overcoming It More Feasible
When students identify a problem, they’re compelled to do something about it; however, if the problem is too large, it can be overwhelming for them. When they’re overwhelmed, they might shut down and stop learning. For that reason, it’s important for them to shape the problem by taking on a piece they can handle.
To help guide students, provide a list of topics and allow them to choose one. In my experience, choosing their own topic prompts students’ curiosity—which drives them to persevere through a challenging task. Additionally, I have students maintain their scope at a school, regional, or national level. Keeping the focus away from an international scope allows them to filter down the number of results when they begin researching. Shaping the problem this way allowed students to address it in a manageable way.
Students Can Problem-Solve with Purpose
Once students identified a slice of a larger problem that they could manage, they started to read and think about it, collaborate together, and figure out how to solve it. To further support them in taking on a manageable piece of the problem, the parameters of the solution were that it had to be something they could implement immediately. For example, raising $3 million to build a shelter for those experiencing homelessness in the community isn’t something that students can do tomorrow. Focusing on a solution that could be implemented immediately made it easier for them to come up with viable options.
With the problem shaped down to a manageable piece, students were better able to come up with a solution that would have a big impact. This problem-solving process also invites ingenuity and innovation because it allows teens to critically look at their day-to-day lives and experiences to consider what actions they could take to make a difference in the world. It prompts them to look at their world through a different lens.
When the conditions for inquiry are created by allowing students to problem-find, problem-shape and problem-solve, it allows students to do the following:
- Critically examine their world to identify problems that exist
- Feel empowered because they realize that they can be part of a solution
- Innovate by developing new solutions to old problems
Put it All Together to Promote Change
Here are two examples of what my grade 11 students came up with when tasked with examining the national news to problem-find, problem-shape, and problem-solve.
Topic: Indigenous Issues in Canada
Question: How are Indigenous peoples impacted by racism?
Problem-find: The continued racism against Indigenous peoples has led to the families of murdered women not attaining justice, Indigenous peoples not being able to gain employment, and Indigenous communities not being able to access basic necessities like healthcare and clean water.
Problem-shape: A lot of the issues that Indigenous peoples face require government intervention. What can high school teens do to combat these issues?
Problem-solve: Teens need to stop supporting professional sports teams that tokenize Indigenous peoples, and if they see a peer wearing something from such a sports team, we need to educate them about how the team’s logo perpetuates racism.
Topic: People With Disabilities in Canada
Question: What leads students with a hearing impairment to feel excluded?
Problem-find: Students with a hearing impairment struggle to engage with course texts like films and videos.
Problem-shape: A lot of the issues that students with a hearing impairment face in schools require teachers to take action. What can high school teens do to help their hearing-impaired peers feel included?
Problem-solve: When teens share a video on social media, they should turn the closed-captioning on, so that all students can consume the media being shared.
Once my students came up with solutions, they wanted to do something about it and use their voices to engage in global citizenship. This led them to create TikTok and Snapchat videos and Instagram posts that they shared and re-shared among their peer group.
The learning that students engaged in led to their wanting to teach others—which allowed a greater number of students to learn. This whole process engendered conversations about our world and helped them realize that they aren’t powerless; they can do things to initiate change in areas that they’re interested in and passionate about. It allowed them to use their voices to educate others and promote change.