Promoting Problem Solving in the Classroom

Helping students learn how to overcome adversity can be challenging.  I find it difficult, at times, to overcome the problems with which I’m faced on a daily basis.  How can I create an interactive lesson on grammar?  How do I change a tire on my car?  Problem solving is a tough skill to teach people in general, let alone fifth graders.  What’s the best way to help students learn the art of solving problems?  Experiences in failure.  Yes, that’s right, I said, let students fail.

I told my students on day one that I want them to fail this year, as that is when the real learning happens.  When people stumble, make a mistake, or fail, they have a choice to make.  They can find a new way to solve their problem or give up.  I want my students to see the power in perseverance and problem solving.  I empower my students to change their perspective, try something new, or take a break when faced with adversity.  The best way to learn to solve problems is through practice.  As a teacher, I find creative ways to help my students encounter problems throughout each and every day.  This way, they have multiple chances to mess up, make mistakes, fail, and then learn.  I use these opportunities as teachable moments.  What do you do now?

A prime example of this strategy in action happened today during Science class.  The students are in the midst of a final project for our unit on physics.  They need to create a pinball machine that applies the concepts of kinetic and potential energy, simple machines, and speed and velocity.  They can only use materials they have access to in our classroom.  As we have lots of “stuff” in our Maker Space, the possibilities are almost endless.

After planning out their designs and creating a blueprint of their pinball machines, they continued working on constructing them in class today.  After the students, working in pairs, set a goal for the period, they got right to work.  At first, the room was filled with activity.  The students were measuring, sawing, re-sawing, remeasuring, taping, gluing, and trying to get the bases of their pinball machines assembled.  Things went swimmingly for the first 45 minutes.  Then, the students started to hit some walls as they encountered problems.  How do you attach the legs of a pinball machine to the machine itself?  How do you make a base wide enough?  How do you attach two pieces of wood together to create legs?

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I observed the students as they started bumping into these problems.  While they became frustrated, they never gave up.  They searched for new ways to solve their problems.  One group that was trying to widen their pinball table, connected two pieces of wood together by attaching wooden shingles with nails to the back of the two pieces.  Very creative.  Another group struggled to attach their legs to their pinball machine base with screws, and so they found another way to transform their base into an inclined plane.  They attached a piece of wood to the back.  It was so fun to watch my students face adversity in class today, and then persevere through it to find new solutions to their problems.  I praised the students as they generated new ways to solve the dilemmas with which they were faced.  Providing students opportunities to fail, learn from their mistakes, and then find new solutions to their problems is how genuine learning and growth happens in and out of the classroom.

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