Inadvertently Teaching Problem Solving

The best things in life generally aren’t planned.  They happen without intention.  I met my wife in college accidentally.  I left a concert early and ended up checking my email, which lead to me receiving an instant message from her.  The rest is history.  I wasn’t even looking for a girlfriend at that point in my life.  However, the fates had aligned that Saturday evening in November of 1997, accidentally.

The same can be said about the classroom.  The best laid plans don’t always produce the best results.  Sometimes, the genuine learning happens through teachable moments that weren’t planned.  My STEM class is organized in such a way that I force teachable moments to happen.  The students need to solve their own problems and discover answers  independently.  They foster their own A-Ha moments with my guidance.  Ownership allows true learning to happen.  When the students own their learning, engagement follows.

Today in STEM class, the students worked on their  self-created chemistry investigations.  Some of the boys were working on their lab reports while others were conducting their experiments.  The sixth grade classroom was alive with chemistry and excitement this morning.  The boys worked with their partners to solve problems, complete experiments, and record observations.  Some of the groups turned their observations into movies using their iPads while other groups worked at revising their lab reports.  One group wasn’t able to safely conduct their investigation in the classroom and so they needed to figure out what to do.  Do they revise their lab report and change their investigation or create a new investigation altogether?  With some input from my co-teacher, they decided to slightly alter their investigation.  Instead of boiling oil, they wanted to heat oil by placing a metal container of the oil into a bucket of hot water.  Then they would pour it onto the ice cubes to explore what happens.  So, they did this.  They didn’t feel as though the water was hot enough, but they conducted the investigation anyway.  Then, as they were unable to observe any obvious changes in the ice, they wanted to challenge themselves one step further.  Instead of heating the oil, what happens when they freeze the oil after it is poured onto the ice?  Will the oil separate before freezing?  Will the oil freeze in the ice?

The students were curious.  They didn’t want to give up on their investigation.  So, rather than create a new experiment, they changed their investigation.  Then, when they didn’t receive the result they wanted, they brainstormed other solutions and ideas.  They solved a problem that they didn’t know they would have.  They thought for sure that they would be able to heat oil in the dining hall kitchen in order to conduct their investigation.  When they learned today that they couldn’t, they didn’t give up.  They persevered and solved their problem.  They didn’t know what direction to go in until they tried, failed, reflected, thought about it, and tried something else.  It’s all a part of the process of problem solving.  I love it.  This is why I created a STEM course in the sixth grade.  The boys need to learn these valuable life skills now rather than waiting until high school.

Happy accidents in life and in the classroom help keep things interesting and allow the learning and growing to increase exponentially.  Without any sort of direct instruction or much guidance today, my students utilized the problem solving process to grow and learn as scientists.  Wow!  That’s what it’s all about.


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