Helping Students Learn to Solve Their Own Problems

A few years ago, I had a chat with the seventh grade teachers at my school regarding the skills they felt as though the incoming seventh graders matriculating from our sixth grade program lacked.  At the top of their list was problem solving skills.  They noted that the seventh graders we had in the sixth grade could not solve simple problems to complete tasks.  Rather than figure out how to do something, they immediately asked for help.  They couldn’t work with their peers to solve problems either.  They gave up or just went to the teacher with questions.  They didn’t know what to do when they encountered a problem.

So, two years ago, I created the STEM program in the sixth grade as a way to help the students learn to solve their own problems.  Recently, I learned that the same seventh grade team I spoke with a few years ago observed that this current group of students who came up from our sixth grade program, are much more capable of solving problems on their own.  They are effectively working with their peers to complete work and solve problems.  So, is this change as a result of the new STEM program we piloted just last year?  Perhaps.  Either way, the students seem more prepared for the rigors of seventh grade than in year’s past.  Therefore, we must be doing something right in the sixth grade.

As critical thinking and problem solving skills are vital to our students being effective and meaningful global citizens, our sixth grade program provides students ample opportunity to practice using and applying the keys to problem solving.  In STEM class, the students need to ask two peers before asking the teacher for assistance.  This way, they learn to use their peers as teachers to solve their problems.  So that our STEM program can be individualized to meet the students where they are, the math portion of each unit requires the students to learn the concepts with help from their peers and the teachers.  But, it has to start with the students.  They need to review the concept in the math book or with videos using the Khan Academy app on their iPad.  As most of our students come from schools where information was force fed to them and very little thinking and problem solving was needed, learning to solve their own problems and using their peers as resources are new concepts.  They don’t know how to utilize these skills.  So, it often takes the entire year for many of our boys to rely on their peers for help and to think critically in order to solve their own problems.  Today’s STEM class offered a snapshot of this transition from teacher-reliance to self-reliance.

One of the boys struggled to understand how to solve algebraic equations.  Instead of using the textbook as a resource or viewing tutorial videos on his iPad first, before asking for help from his peers, he went right to a peer for help.  Now, while this friend did offer effective help, because the particular student didn’t genuinely understand the concept being explained to him, he was very confused and put up a wall.  This fixed mindset prevented him from learning this new concept.  Despite talking to him about the importance of advocating for himself and doing the learning on his own over the past several weeks, he chose to ignore the expectations and ended up bringing about tears of frustration within himself.  So, after trying to remind him again in class today about the expectations to no avail, I had him meet me in the classroom during afternoon study hall for extra help.

This proved to be very beneficial.  After the separation from class and time to process what happened, he came to the extra help session with a more open, growth mindset.  I reviewed the expectations of the math packet with him.  He’s not expected to know or have learned all of the concepts covered in the math packet.  When he encounters a new concept that he doesn’t understand, he needs to look at examples in the textbook and watch videos on the Khan Academy app on his iPad.  He seemed to understand this.  Then, I reviewed the steps of solving various algebraic equations with him.  He then applied this skill learned to solve a few sample problems on his own.  He clearly demonstrated his ability to meet the graded objective that he struggled to showcase in class today.

What was it that caused this strange behavior?  Why was he unable to tackle the learning on his own in class?  Why did he operate with such a fixed mindset?  What then caused the change I saw within him when he came to afternoon study hall for extra help?  Why did he seem so open to learning the concept and then easily displayed his ability to meet the objective?  What was different between class and the extra help session?  Was it that he just needed process time?  Was he overwhelmed in class because all of the students were there working diligently and he seemed confused?  Did he just need time to process the concept in order to master it?  Whatever happened, it reminded me of how important instilling the problem solving process within our students is.  They need to learn how to be self-aware in order to solve their own problems.  So, each year, I need to be sure I focus on helping the students learn the skills of an effective problem solver.


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