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How the Common Core Standards Tackle Problem Solving

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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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Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

It is interesting how this article in no way addresses the way in which CCSS addresses creative problem solving. There appears to be a disconnect between the title and the content. An adult's experience with a lawn mower is irrelevant. Some of the comments at least try.

Justin Marquis's picture
Justin Marquis
Education writer for and adjunct professor

In the Information Age Literacy means far more than reading, writing and understanding. It involves an entire new range of information processing, decoding and communication skills that include visual literacy, and tech literacy among others. I'm just not sure that the common core has considered this wide range of what it means to be a literate individual NOW!
Read more:

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

I agree totally with your thinking that CCSS is linked to problem solving. Literacy is associated with effective learning as you suggest. My notion of effective learning is that it is learning that results in long term retention AND IN THE ABILITY TO USE IT - I.e., to be able to apply it to solve a problem. This suggests that effective problem solving is a natural action once the learning is effective in the appropriate core knowledge; literacy is expanded beyond core knowledge most effectively through project / problem assignments. Also, AN OBVIOUS ASSESSMENT OF LITERACY THEN (to me at least) is the demonstrated ability to use the information to solve important and appropriate issues or problems.

I thus believe it important to facilitate learning of core knowledge to attain literacy AND to facilitate effective problem solving skills. FYI, my procedure has the acronym OSCAR (for Objective, Speed bumps, Considerations, Answers, and Reflection). I suggest application of one's problem solving procedure to the issue of learning core knowledge effectively is appropriate - as is the subsequent use of the procedure to solve real world situations. My thesis is this: EVERY situation faced will get a better solution more quickly if that situation is treated as a problem to be solved!

SRowan's picture
ESL Teacher, Middle School; Elementary Summer School Principal

I've been told that I know a little something about a lot of things. This is what I model for my students- the benefits to being observant in their world. They need to fill their "suitcase" with all that they've every seen, done, or heard. Their suitcase will get them through school first, and then through life.
I did not, however, fill my own suitcase exclusively with the things I read. I was not a big reader growing up. I plodded through reading assignments and never really enjoyed reading until I was in high school. I did have a strong sense of curiosity, though. I was encouraged to explore my world in a tactile way, through listening, and by observing nature's cause and effect.
I approach the changes that the Common Core is bringing with the same curiosity; who knows where it will end up? I am sure that some creativity will be needed as I help my English Language Learners navigate the new literary waters. Let's hope their suitcases float!

Karin's picture
National Board Certified 4th grade GATE teacher

I have to admit that I have not done too much reading on the common core standards yet. But I really hope that they address not only basic problem solving, but creative and critical thinking skills as well. The lack of ability for my students to solve simple problems like, not being able to find their pencil, or filling a page in their science journal with notes and asking what to do when they have no more room, or what to do if they find a book on their desk that is not theirs, is quite scary (for lack of a better word). I find mysef saying many, many times throughout the day to "problem solve" when my students come to me with problems like the ones listed above. I don't know if there inability to solve simple problems is because they are lazy, or have never been taught strategies to be good problem solvers. I tend to lean toward the later.

If we want students to be ready to enter middle school, high school, college, and the the workforce, then teaching critical/creative problem solving skills needs to start in elementary school, and is a must. These kids will be running this country when I am old and I worry for everyone's future. Consequently, I make it a point to incorporate critical/creative problem solving activities in my class, both independently, and in cooperative group settings.

There is so much of a push, in CA anyway, regarding testing and test scores, that problem solving is ignored. I think what is sometimes forgotten by educators is that if students knew how to problem solve they would be able to answer standardized test questions more effectively. If it was taught all year long, I believe there would be no need for intensive test prep right before testing time, that is boring, and takes time away from in depth teaching. But to do this would require teachers to spend more time developing lessons that include grade level standards along with problem solving strategies and activities. I only know a few dedicated teachers that would take the time to do this. If the Common Core Standards incorporate problem solving strategies and activities then we are definitely on the road to improvements in this area. However, this remains to be seen.

I appreciate several of the comments posted by others that name problem solving strategies and programs they currently use. I will be be looking into them to incorporate into my classroom as well, since my school district currently does not have any such program.

Richard Cottingham's picture

"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)."

I really like this statement and agree with it 100%. I would like to expand on it a little even at the risk of going far off the subject of the Common Core Standards.
In elementary schools there is a huge aount of discussion aobut reading comprehension and whether ot not a student is a good reader. My observations have been that elementary teachers frequently do not realize that reading alone does not constitute literacy. Further, elementary teachers often accept the idea that some students can read well but just do not like to read. It simply is not so. Students who read well like to read.

I am convinced that teachers need to quit accepting the excuse "I just don't like to read." from sutdents who rally can't read or at least can't read very well. Just as knowing how to read does not constitute literacy, calling words or stumbling through phonic decoding is not reading. Competent reading is pleasurable.

Rachel's picture
6th Earth/Space Science Teacher

While the it seems that this article is as a previous post eluded, misleading, it has brought the conversation to the real goal of the Common Core. After going to the summer institute here in Florida. I understand more of the basis. Common Core standards challenging and students are being required to think. To form an opinion of what is happening in an activity and in a text. To find support, and explain. This then leads into that critical thinking in the real world and problem solvers.

Becky's picture
Gifted Education Specialist

Rachel said: Common Core standards challenging and students are being required to think. To form an opinion of what is happening in an activity and in a text. To find support, and explain. This then leads into that critical thinking in the real world and problem solvers.

I like how she says "to find support and explain" because what I see is kids who are full of opinion based on nothing more than a lifetime of being told their every thought and feeling is gold. They need to learn to reference the text, to form an *informed* opinion and to realize nearly all ideas have both good and bad mixed together. I see the need to form an opinion of either "for or against" to be what we see every day in politics - dysfunction at work. I don't care so much abut a young person's opinion as I do about their understanding of nuances. If they understand all the nuances, then their opinion has meaning. Without it, it is no more valuable than a toddler's opinion regarding lima beans.

MRM's picture

In reply to Richard Cottingham:

"Students who read well like to read....Competent reading is pleasurable."

Not true. I think your tone is a little patronizing. Just because you obviously like to read doesn't mean everyone does--especially many children who haven't read anything they really enjoyed and who never get to choose what they get to read.

My own daughter was a gifted reader (never, ever "stumbled through phonic decoding" and could sight read ANY word she knew the meaning of from very early on), but she did NOT like to read (should say HATED to read) until a teacher introduced her to a love of reading one interesting book (of fiction...) at a time.

Some kids like the PROCESS and are proud to show you what they can do. My daughter could not have cared less about that. What mattered was the CONTENT of the material and whether it interested her.

Fortunately, my own children, now teenagers, have had a chance to develop a love of reading; but I am afraid there are many young children who will be turned off by the Common Bore--with its insistence on so much non-fictional text--before they have had a chance to develop a passion for it..

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