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3 Simple Steps To Problem Solving

Posted by on in Education Leadership
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The last parent-teacher conference of the year happened last night and while the event I am about to describe did not happen yesterday, seeing the parents reminded me of a father of a student who struggled through my chemistry class 3 years ago, asking me for a method allowing his daughter to quickly "get" chemistry. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that a hack that allows one to instantly become a chemistry genius just does not exist. And though I happen to be a mainly left-brained (and working on my right-brain consciousness) science and engineering teacher, I will venture out of my zone of expertise here and claim that no such hacks exist for any school subject, or life skill, or professional craft.

The truth is that is takes work to become good at something; even more work to become great at it; and a ton more work to become excellent and maintain excellence at any one thing. Therefore, the right approach is needed and it involves problem solving. But, what is the right approach to solving a problem? I believe that becoming an effective problem solver involves asking 3 key questions: What Can I Do?, What Can I Read?, and Who Can I Ask?, seeking answers to these questions, and taking action once you have your answers. 

To Solve a Problem, Ask Yourself: What Can I Do?

A student came up to my desk recently and told me that he does not understand the material we are working on in class at the moment. When I asked what it is he does not get, I received the standard reply: Everything.

Everything?!?! That's not very specific I thought and immediately realized that the student did not put much thought into trying to understand his lack of understanding. I think this is a common teenage-brain theme, and I believe it is the result of not knowing how to identify, attack, and tackle problems.

So next time a student comes up to my desk and tells me such a thing I will ask him: What Can You Do About It? Are there any actions you can take that will improve your comprehension? Are you investing enough time to learning the concepts? Do you pay attention to the objectives of the lessons? Do you take good notes and process them in multiple ways? Do you summarize them, find key words, and plan out your study time? Do you think about where you can get help and consider every possible way that can help you along? Are you being proactive about solving your problems?

Doing any of those things will make a difference. Doing several of them will make a significant difference. Doing all of them consistently will be a game changer for a high school student. Asking, answering, and acting on similar questions applicable to your problematic situation will be a game changer for you. The alternative? Throw your hands up in the air and lament.

To Solve a Problem, Ask Yourself: What Can I Read?

Maybe you are a teacher faced with a discipline problem in one of your classes. You are a good classroom manager in general, but you have this one class that just will not conform to the norms you have set. Several kids in this class are looking at you as though you have done something horribly wrong to them in your past life. You know it couldn't have happened this year, because they have had this look since day one. Others give off the vibe that their mere presence in your class is some terrestrial version of purgatory; a punishment for sins they have definitely not committed. For whatever reason, the "me against them" dynamic prevails, and on some days, your whole day seems to be defined by this one class, or rather the events and interactions that occur in it. 

If you are still reading this, chances are you have had that one class filled with sons and daughters of Satan (this is the only logical conclusion explaining why they behave in such a way). So here's my take on this: You can either fight the battle all year long, and if you play your hand skillfully, you will maintain "survival mode," or you can ask yourself: What Can I Read? Luckily there are tons of books on everything, pedagogy and social dynamics included. I must admit something here: I have had such classes in the past and I have not asked myself this question. I simply didn't realize. Unconsciously and consciously I chose to fight believing I am the one "in the right" and "in the know." I still believe I was, but that's inconsequential, because by choosing to travel the rocky road I chose constant stress and frustration. 

It's pointless to regret and wish to have been smarter then, but now I realize that there is wisdom beyond imagination contained in books. Millenniums of experience and information on every idea ever conceived and problem encountered resides on pages of books and all we have to do is pick one up to tap into this wisdom. It is easy to be arrogant, but to keep reinventing the wheel is plain stupid, and that's what I was: arrogant and stupid. So now I ask myself questions and I encourage everyone to do the same. No one knows enough to be an expert on everything. There has never been a need for that as the human race meticulously records its progress in books, journals, and on various digital and virtual media. The knowledge flows like a river with new tributaries added to it every day and I see no reason not to dip my glass in and drink. Do you?

To Solve a Problem, Ask Yourself: Who Can I Ask?

At some point in my life I came to the realization that I am not the smartest person in the world about everything and I started asking others for help. I became open-minded. Ever since I can remember, I was the kid who would do everything by himself and for himself. I spent countless hours figuring things out not being able to allow someone to help or ask for help and to fast-track my progress on something through useful advice. Such approach can be good for developing problem-solving skills, creativity, and persistence...

However, once I achieved these 3 things I believe I would have been a lot better served if I developed the additional skill of asking those with more experience and expertise in whatever I was working on to help. I did eventually figure it out. I think initially I was afraid of being exposed as someone not as smart as I hoped to be, a fraud of sorts, but I actually experienced the opposite: the world opened up to me, most people I asked for help were welcoming, and I was indeed becoming smarter. By admitting to myself that I can't know everything and can't do everything single-handed(ly), I started becoming a lot smarter. 

So, ask for help. Leave being a stupid and arrogant to the know-it-alls like me. I've been there and done that. You are different. I admit that asking others for their input and expertise can be tough. Approaching people, especially the ones you're "not sure about," and asking them to help you with something outside of your comfort zone can be daunting. The only remedy is to do it, and to keep doing it over and over until it becomes habitual, and the fear, or apprehension, or whatever feeling it is for you is gone. You must make yourself do it. You will be better for it. You will benefit from it. And then you will love it. 

Effective in Any Arena of Life a.k.a. the Post Scriptum

I mostly used educational examples here. Hey, that's not all I know, but that's what I know. However, problems arise in every aspect of our lives and I believe that this approach to problem solving is effective in any arena of life. The 3 questions to ask yourself are: What Can I Do?What Can I Read?, and Who Can I Ask? Then you look for answers to these questions. And then you take action on your answers. This is Problem Solving 101, yet if you study carefully and master the method, it will feel as though you have achieved graduate-level competency. Tuition to be collected later...

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed this post, please share it with others and sign up for my NEWSLETTER to receive regular tips and strategies to help your students learn and add to your teaching toolbox.

Remember: You have the power to solve problems and change the world. Use it often.


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Oskar is a Science, Engineering, and Learning How to Learn teacher and an author of the Crush School Book Series.

His professional interests are brain-based teaching and learning, flexible seating (#StarbucksMyRoom founder), social-emotional learning, social justice, and using technology to enhance learning.

He is also a fan of the Jedi order (and uses DA FORCE frequently), ninjas, and the superhero in all of us. He is on a Quest to Change the World because he can. We all can.

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Guest Friday, 22 February 2019