Social Skills: Problem Solving
“Life is a continuous exercise in creative problem solving.” – Michael J Gelb
We all face difficulties and challenges on a daily basis. From selecting an outfit, deciding on dinner, or choosing a new TV series, through to managing financial stressors, repairing relationship breakdowns, or dealing with illness and injury; problem solving is integral to our daily lives. It is a skill that we continue to develop, improve, and refine over time; an ability that allows us to overcome stress, pain, and hardship; and a strength that allows us to learn. As an educator, problem solving skills are required to figure out how to teach and impart knowledge with each and every one of our students; and, as a student, problem solving skills are required to discover and understand the knowledge our teachers have to share.
There are three stages of skill acquisition: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. Just like learning how to perform a handstand, problem solving is a complex skill. Initially, we make many errors and require significant feedback in order to help shape the skill – the cognitive stage. Over time and with much practice, we begin to make less errors, and rely less on feedback – the associative stage. Finally, we can perform the skill independently, with ease, as required – the autonomous stage. Once we have achieved automaticity of a skill, it can be further developed and extended by increasing the difficulty or changing the environment – imagine now performing that handstand one handed, in the middle of a gymnastics competition, atop a balance beam. It is our job as teachers to walk our students through this process and teach them how to become effective problem solvers. We must break this skill down into small and meaningful steps, provide opportunities to practice, offer specific feedback, and allow the opportunity to apply these skills in a variety of situations and contexts.
To teach problem solving, I use a five-step process that I get students to apply to a fun, yet challenging, activity. The process I use is as follows:
Undoubtedly, there are many other approaches to teaching problem solving skills. However, below I will be sharing ten activities that I have used to apply my five-step process to problem solving. Similar to my last three blogs, ‘Taking Turns and Sharing’, ‘Following the Rules’, and ‘Cooperation’, I will be using the structure of a Warm Up, Main Activity and a Cool Down.
- Identify the goal. In order to solve a problem, we must first know what we are trying to achieve; we must identify the goal we are working towards. It can be easy to overlook or dismiss this step, but by clearly defining a purpose or goal, we are able to clarify our thinking, minimise distractions, and remain focused.
- Identify the problem. Once we know what the goal is, we are able to clearly assess the situation to identify the problem – what exactly is it that is stopping us from achieving our goal. This may sound simple, but identifying the problem is just as important as identifying a strategy (next step). Misjudging or misdiagnosing a problem can lead to the implementation of ineffective strategies that can be time consuming, cause frustration, and even increase the severity of the situation.
- Brainstorm strategies. Once the problem has been identified, we can begin to identify a number of possible strategies. At this point, it is important to consider your options. It’s easy to go into a situation, guns blazing, and trying the first strategy we think of. But, as the saying goes, ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’. We must consider the possibilities and choose the strategy that is most appropriate for the situation. By taking the time to consider the possibilities, we increase the likelihood of successfully solving the problem.
- Trial the strategy. When we have decided on the best strategy for the situation, we must trial it. Remember, problem solving is a process, not a guarantee; just because we try something doesn’t mean it is going to work. That’s why, after we trial the strategy we must review it.
- Review the strategy. In this step, we must decide if the strategy that we trialled was successful; whether we found a solution, or if we need to go back to the drawing board. If the strategy was unsuccessful, we must work through the process again. Sometimes, this can be as simple as trialling the next strategy on our list (identified in step 3) or as complex as reconsidering our goal and/or problem. If the strategy was successful, it is useful to still review the situation and learn from the experience; were there any unexpected consequences, would another strategy have been equally or more effective, would you use the same strategy again, or could it be applied to another problem, etc.
In the warm up I define the aim of the lesson, define the key terminology, and introduce the expected language. This can be done through a brainstorming activity, giving a verbal explanation or reading a social story. For example, you could use a script such as:
Today we are going to practice problem solving. Problem solving is a process we can use to identify solutions for a challenge or issue we are dealing with. There are five steps to problem solving: Goal, problem, brainstorm, trial, and review.
To finish off the warm up, I like to do a quick engagement activity such as singing a song or watching a short video clip about the topic. A few quick warm up ideas are riddles (e.g., You can see me in water, but I never get wet. What am I? Your reflection.), word puzzles (e.g., crossword, word search, fill in the missing word, crack the code, etc.,), or math puzzles (e.g., the 9 dot problem, count the number of triangles, etc.).
The main activity should focus on practicing the skill of problem solving. Below are five fun activities:
1. Line up challenge.
Students have to line up in a given order (height, age, alphabetical, etc.,), without talking to each other. Can complete this task for time or introduce a time limit.
Goal: To line up in given order
Problem: Not allowed to talk
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., get a partner to measure height if uncertain, use fingers to indicate age, use pointing and gesture, mouth the answer, etc.
2. Circle Challenge.
Students stand in a circle and are given a ball or object to pass around the circle, but are not allowed to use their hands. If anyone uses their hands, the ball goes back to the starting person. Can complete this task for time or introduce a time limit.
Goal: To pass the ball around the circle
Problem: Unable to use hands to pass the ball
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., pass the ball using wrists, forearms, elbows, chins, knees, or feet.
3. Hoop Challenge.
One hoop is placed on the ground and students are told everyone needs to be in the hoop. Students can also be told everyone needs to be on the hoop.
Goal: For everyone to be in the hoop
Problem: The hoop is too small for everyone to fit inside the hoop
Brainstorm solutions: e.g., only put one body part in the hoop (e.g., hand, foot, finger) and this will satisfy the criteria.
4. Paper chain.
Individually or in teams, students are given a piece of paper, scissors, and sticky tape or stapler. Only using those resources, students must create the longest possible paper chain.
Goal: To create the longest paper chain
Problem: Only have limited resources – one piece of paper, scissors and tape/stapler
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., cut thin vs thick strips, cut long vs short strips, use tape vs a stapler
Students stand in a circle and create a ‘knot’ by holding each other’s hands (note: cannot hold your own hand or the same person’s hand twice). Without letting go of hands, students must ‘undo’ the knot.
Goal: To undo the knot
Problem: Not able to hold let go of hands
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., go slowly, undo the knots in sections, have a designated person to give instructions, lift arms for people to go underneath, bend down to allow people to step over, etc.
6. Cup Tower Challenge.
In teams, students are given 6 plastic cups (stacked), string, scissors, and a rubber band. As a team, students must build a tower three cups high (3 on the base, 2 in the middle, one on the top), using only the rubber band and string.
Goal: To build a tower three cups high
Problem: Not allowed to use hands, can only use string and a rubber band
Brainstorm strategies: Cut one length of string per person and tie each length to the rubber band. Each team member can now increase or decrease the tension on the rubber band and use it as a ‘hand’ to pick up and put down the cups.
7. Position Swap.
A straight line in placed on the ground (chalk, tape, ribbon or similar). Students must stand on the line facing a partner and swap positions, without stepping off the line.
Goal: To swap positions with partner
Problem: Have to stay on the line
Brainstorm strategies: one person bend down for the other person to step over, hold hands to counterbalance as you simultaneously sidestep each other
8. All aboard.
Students are given a blanket and told they must all stand on the blanket without touching the ground. If students are able to do that, the blanket is folded in half and the process repeated. Keep going until the blanket is too small for everyone to stand on it.
Goal: For everyone to fit on the smallest possible sized blanket
Problem: No one is allowed to touch the ground
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., counterbalance with peers, stand on tip toes, stand on one foot, or stand on peers’ feet, etc.
Students must get from one platform to the other (one side of the room to the other) without touching the ‘quicksand’. In order to achieve this, students are given X pieces of paper (depending on the distance) to create stepping stones. Students can only cross to the other platform using the stepping stones and someone must be in contact with each stepping stone at all times, otherwise it will ‘sink’ into the quicksand.
Goal: To get from one platform to the other without sinking in the quicksand.
Problem: Can only cross to the other side using the stepping stones and someone must be in contact with each stepping stone at all times.
Brainstorm strategies: The leader puts down the first stepping stone (piece of paper down). The leader must keep a hand or a finger on the stepping stone as they step onto it. The leader must repeat this process until they reach the other platform. Each person must also ensure that the person behind them has one foot on the stepping stone they are currently standing on, before they step to the next one.
A mine field is created by placing a range of materials (e.g., bean bag, ribbons, ropes, books, balloons, paper, jumpers, shoes, etc.,) in the playing space. Students are placed in two teams. One person from each team is the sergeant and one person is the cadet. The cadet is blindfolded and must listen to the sergeant’s instructions to get through the minefield without any explosions (touching any mines). If a mine explodes, that cadet must sit out. The team that gets the most number of cadets through the minefield wins.
Goal: For the sergeant to get all the cadets through the minefield (or the most number).
Problem: The cadets are blindfolded and must get through the minefield by following the sergeant’s instructions.
Brainstorm strategies: e.g., designated one sergeant or share sergeant’s after each cadet attempts the minefield, attempt to take longer or shorter steps, use modifying language such as “big/large/small/tiny step, use commands such as ‘stop’ or ‘pause’ to prevent a cadet from stepping on a mine, sergeant moves along the sideline to properly see the land mines, etc.
The cool down provides an opportunity for reflection and consolidation. Identify the goal of the session (problem solving) and ask them to reflect on the experience; was it difficult or easy, were some parts of the process easier, how could they apply this process to another situation, etc. If possible, taking pictures or video throughout the lesson supports reflection during the cool down. This can also be used for the class or school newsletter or as a prompt for a writing lesson.
Remember, problem solving is an essential skill that we constantly use. It is important that we support students to understand this process it and apply it to a range of situations in a range of environments. By supporting problem solving skills, we support learning!