by • February 19, 2015 • Collaboration, Design Thinking, Integrative ThinkingComments (6)1505

How is it possible?

This week my students engaged in a challenging problem solving activity – one that required the whole class to work together without instructions to solve a complex problem.

What ensued was fascinating.  In each class a different dynamic emerged – one that involved chaos, shouting, frustration, worried looks in my direction, pleas from some for direction and assistance and finally a dawning recognition that I wasn’t going to help them.  They would have to figure it out themselves.  Each class did – eventually and much to their surprise.  Incredibly rich learning has emerged from the activity.  Student insights shared during the debrief were powerful.

As I watched the chaos, forcing myself to not intervene, I couldn’t help but think, “How is it possible that after 8 years of schooling a group of children found it so difficult to work together to solve a complex problem?”  The flaws in how we raise children became glaringly obvious.  The students didn’t have a clue how to begin.  They immediately entered into solving the problem. They acted as individuals.  Imagine 30 individuals each with their own idea of how to solve the problem all starting to solve the problem at once.  There was zero effort as a group to spend time exploring the problem nor did they consider possible strategies.  There was very little awareness of the importance of developing a common understanding of the problem.   Eventually a few leaders emerged who took charge and facilitated each class to resolution.  There was satisfaction, but also a deep sense of frustration.  The kids knew that they should have been able to engage in a different way to solve that problem. There was a “lack” and it was obvious to everyone.

It made me wonder about the structure of the day and just how much we rob students of the opportunity to learn how to make decisions and solve complex problems by constantly planning for them.  How can students possibly understand how to work as a group to solve a complex problem when they only ever experience solving minor inconsequential problems?

What became clear was that as we begin our deep dive into integrative and design thinking, we are going to need to spend time learning strategies for problem exploration as well as how to engage as a group when faced with a complex problem. A discourse will need to be developed so that when faced with this kind of challenging task, students have a problem exploration and large group engagement toolkit ready to go.

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6 Responses to How is it possible?

  1. Will Gourley says:

    Thank you Heidi for sharing this post. I feel that you have articulated something I have been fumbling to express, as well, over my brief career (6 yrs). When you share about the structure of the instructional day as robbing students of opportunities to learn makes me reflect on how we expect our children to take over one day, but never allow them to take the lumps, bumps and jumps in order to do so. There is an African proverb that fits here, “If we do not allow our youth access to the fire, they will burn the village down to fell what warmth is.” Allowing your students the chance to work through the awkward beginnings will equip them far better than you holding their hand and walking them through it.

    • Heidi Siwak says:

      Thank you for your comments Will. I think this is something all of us struggle with. I often place students into small groups (5-6) to solve problems. This is easier in small groups. It was having a large group attempt to solve one complex problem that made the flaws so apparent. Now at least I know what kind of opportunities we must create so students develop competencies and strategies. I love that saying and will use it.

  2. Carol Broer says:

    As you state, Heidi, this is inherent in our classrooms precisely because we do not teach nor expect our students to be efficient at solving difficult problems.
    Explicitly teaching communication and problem-solving skills can help to prepare students to approach such a challenge. Some such activities, often labeled ‘Leadership’, can help, but only if they are followed up with in-depth and thoughtful debrief.

    • Heidi Siwak says:

      Hi Carol,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree that communication skills need to be explicitly top and that the debrief is essential for learning.

  3. Cheryl Paterson says:

    I know of many teachers that value communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. Practices that reflect on the process for the individual as well as the group process and group dynamic are so necessary. Many educators work with students to create a classroom that scaffolds social, emotional, and academic growth: community circles, regular debriefing, explicitly teaching pro social behaviour and communication skills, as well as collaboration skills are as important as the “academic” expectations. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. You rock!

    • Heidi Siwak says:

      Thanks for your comments Cheryl,
      I agree that many educators do this, and in my own class we work hard at community knowledge building and collaborative skills. The nature of the problem we were attempting to solve, however, was different and not typical of what happens in a classroom. What happened to the students was no different from what happens when adults attempt to solve this problem. It is indicative of a missing skill set and understanding of how to act strategically when attempting to solve a complex problem within a complex integrated system.

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