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The Role of the Teacher Changes in a Problem-Solving Classroom

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How can teachers help students develop problem-solving skills when they themselves, even though confronted with an array of problems every day, may need to become better problem solvers? Our experience leads us to conclude that there is an expertise in a certain kind of problem-solving that teachers possess but that broader problem-solving skills are sometimes wanting.There are a few reasons why this happens. One reason may be that teacher preparation programs remain focused on how to teach subjects and behavior management techniques. Another reason may be that professional development opportunities offered in schools are focused elsewhere. And, another reason could be that leaders still often fail to engage their faculties in solving substantive problems within the school community. 

A recent issue of Education Leadership was dedicated to the topic, "Unleashing Problem Solvers". One theme that ran through several of the articles was the changing role of the teacher. In a positive but traditional classroom, information is shared by the teacher and the students are asked to demonstrate application of that information. A problem-solving classroom is different. A problem-solving classroom requires extraordinary planning on the part of the teacher. For problems to have relevance, students are engaged in the identification of the problem. Teachers have to become experts at creating questions that require students to reach back to information and skills already attained, while figuring out what they need to learn next in order to solve the problem. Some of us are really good at asking these kinds of questions. Others are not.

Students have to become experts at reflecting on these questions as guides resulting in a gathering of new information and skills, and answers. Teachers have to be prepared to offer lessons that bridge the gaps between the skills and information already attained and those the performance of the students demonstrate remain needed. Often it involves teams of students and they are simultaneously learning collaboration and communication skills. 

Problem-Based Classrooms Require Letting Go

Opportunities for teachers to work with each other, to learn from experts, to receive feedback from observers of their work, all allow for skill development. But at the same time, there is a more challenging effort required of the teacher. Problem-based classrooms require teachers to dare to let go of control of the learning and to take hold of the role of questioner, coach, supporter, and diagnostician.  In addition to the lack of training teachers have in these skills, the leaders in charge of evaluating their work also have to know what problem-solving classrooms look like and how to capture that environment in an observation, how to give feedback on the teachers' efforts. Of course, if problem- solving is a collaborative school community process, how does that change the leader's role? Are leaders, themselves, ready to become facilitators of the process rather than the sole problem solver? Many talk about wanting that but most get rewarded for being the problem solver.

Questions are Essential

There is a place to begin and that place is the shared understanding of what problem-based learning actually is. Because teachers traditionally plan for a time for Q and A within classes, they and their leaders may think of questions as having a correct answer. In moving into a problem-based learning design, the questions also have to be more overarching, create cognitive dissonance, and provoke the learner to search for answers. Here is why it is important to come to an understanding about the types of questions to be asked and shifting the teaching and learning practices to be one of expecting more from the learner.

Students Need Problem-Solving Skills

Problem-based learning skills are skills that prepare for a changing environment in all fields.  Current educators cannot imagine some of the careers our students will have over their lifetimes. We do know that change will be part of everyone's work. Flexibility and problem-solving are key skills. Problem- solving involves collaboration, communication, critical thinking, empathy, and integrity. If we listen to the business world, we will hear that design thinking is the way of the future.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO says,

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

The only way for educators to develop these skills in students is to build lessons and units that are interdisciplinary and demand these skills. If we begin from the earliest of grades and expect more as they ascend through the grades, students will have mastered not only their subjects, but the skills that will prepare them for the world of work. How do we best prepare our students? We think problem solving is key.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools.  Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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