Friday, October 12, 2012

Becoming a Patient Problem Solver

"Persistence is the twin sister of excellence.  One is matter of quality; the other, a matter of time." (Marabel Morgan, The Electric Woman)

I spent the past summer writing a State of the Art (current practices) of Critical, Creative and Collaborative Thinking in High School Science classrooms.  While researching the current practices across the globe I came across this great TED talk by Dan Meyer, titled "Math Class Needs a Makeover."  In this video he talks about students struggle with "irresolution."  That it to say that students are uncomfortable with problems that don't nicely wrap themselves up in a neat little bow.  They by far prefer to be shown a procedure that can be repeated, plug in numbers and quickly get a right answer.  To them, this reinforces that they understand the ideas and can do the work.  They like this.  Except that this is very far from the reality of of problem solving really works.  Problem Solving is hard work.

Problem Solving at its heart involves a marriage of critical, creative and collaborative thinking.  Analyzing what they know, applying logic, thinking outside the box and doing it together.  In my Physics class I encourage students to work together.  To help each other come up with new ideas.  Problems have multiple steps.  They often have more than one way to get there.  I don't get students a procedure, but instead teach them the ideas.  I want them to become better problem solvers.  I want them to understand the patterns in nature and make connections between ideas - not just to work through the recipe of plugging in numbers.  But seems that this method of problem solving is more work than they anticipated.  But every day I am honoured as I watch them rise to the challenge.  They are persevering, and slowly beginning to overcome their impatience that was seen in the early days of the semester.

Arthur Costa defines 16 dispositions of good critical thinkers (article here) - including gathering data through the senses, creating, imagining, innovating, thinking flexibly, taking risks, applying past knowledge to new situations, (among others) and of course, persisting.  These dispositions continue to grow and develop as opportunities are presented.  What helps one become a good critical thinker are the skills they employ when they don't know what to do.  Early on it started with a lot of question asking.  A couple weeks in they relied solely on the answer keys to guide them to the next step.  And now I can watch students persist with a problem for at least 30 minutes before asking for asking me for guidance or looking for hints off an answer key.  They ask each other, go back through their notes, look at previously solved problems.  They draw out diagrams, and list things they do know.  They put question marks next to things they are uncertain about.  And while it is happening quietly, they are becoming persistent, patient problem solvers.  And it's beautiful to watch.

What are you doing to help your students become patient problem solvers?

If you haven't seen it - I recommend you take 15 very worthwhile minutes to watch Dan Meyer's TED talk.

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