Causal Modelling: A Different Approach to Problem Solving

Thank you to Nogah Kornberg and Christopher Federico of Rotman School of Management who provided ideas for this lesson.

Whenever the topic of 21 Century Fluencies arises, embedded in the discussion is the need to promote critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Part of the problem about teaching students to solve problems is that the problems they are asked to solve in a school environment are generally linear and have predetermined correct answers.

A  + B = C


Follow this format to construct an essay.

Students may have to demonstrate some critical thinking to accomplish these tasks, but are not required to engage with their learning in a way that forces them to contend with complexity. The kinds of problems they face outside of school, however, are complex. How do we teach for complexity? How do we teach students to devise innovative solutions to complex problems. Where do we begin?

Today my grade 7s were introduced to Causal Modelling as a way to map complex problems and find innovative solutions.

We began by learning about types of problems: simple, structurally complex and wicked.

Simple: If gas costs $1.31/L  and I have a 50L tank that is 2/3s  empty, how much will it cost to fill the tank? (There is only 1 right answer)

Structurally Complex:  How do I get from Dundas Central to the Hamilton Airport (several possibilities, but not infinite possibilities)

Wicked: How do we solve traffic problems in the GTA?

Wicked problems are what students need to be working with. They are meaningful because they have application outside of the classroom; they are challenging; they have infinite possibilities for creative solutions and are fun to play with and think about.

We then reminded ourselves that when people engage in debate and problem solving, they tend to begin at the point that conclusions have already been drawn.

 Solutions cannot be found because parties have already gone up the Ladder of Inference.

Students were asked to discard assumptions, conclusions, beliefs and decisions and to frame the problem differently.

We changed the question:  “What causes gun violence?”  and then began mapping causes of gun violence.
I showed students the causal model my group had created for this problem during the I-Think day at Rotman where I was first introduced to Integrative Thinking.

Mapping causality allows problem solvers to ignore the overwhelming larger problem that is seemingly insolvable and instead find solutions to parts of the problem. In the above example, we found that dealing with mental health issues would allow us to solve part of the problem of gun violence.

Students then paired up and created causal maps for the following.

How does a book become a best seller?
How does someone become a celebrity?
How does homework not get done?
How does a student earn a Level 4?

What I noticed was intense focus and sustained conversation as students created their maps. Students were extremely positive about the experience and the approach. They loved the idea of mapping a problem in its complexity and then thinking about parts of the problem.  All but one thought it would be an extremely useful tool.

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