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.