Tuesday, September 30, 2008

From Laurie Olk: Problem Solving Problem

Last month, I mentioned a report I had read this past summer. Just this week, I’ve begun to move in my thinking. I have been pondering the problem of how to teach my students the art of identifying the problem to solve every since I read that interesting survey.

The survey asked school administrators and business leaders what they considered the most valuable skills students needed to be taught. As expected, administrators had identified that skill as problem solving. That’s good. I consider that a big part of what I do on a daily basis.

But, as you recall, the business leaders’ decided to take it a step further and make my job harder, I think. They identified the main skill necessary as that of “identifying the problem to solve”. This all makes perfect sense though. Corporations are looking for minds that can solve the problems, but first identify those problems to solve. They know that if we are to keep ahead of the economic curve, we need to be innovative. And to be innovative, we need to create new things and come up with new ways of doing things. That doesn’t happen by someone telling you what to create.

I’ve been struggling with how this would look in the classroom and have spoken about it to the gifted ed teacher. Then I saw a commercial on TV the other night for a major vacuum cleaner company. They were talking about their new model of upright. How, instead of 4 small wheels that only go one direction and don’t turn, they now have one big ball shaped wheel that allows the vacuum to turn any direction. I’ve never noticed, when vacuuming, that I’ve had problems getting around the room, but someone identified the problem and came up with this new design.

How do I now relate that to my classroom? I know that it will require my classroom to be less teacher centered and more student centered. I will no longer be center stage. Of course, this change will not happen over night. Instead of me talking to the students, and telling them what they need to do to improve their artwork, I’m going to need to let go and have them identify what their next step is, and even better, down the road, I suppose I need to let them set the problem to solve entirely.

There is a great school in Italy, the Reggio Emilia School, where students set the direction of their learning. If they are studying birds, they decide what they want to do. One time it was to design a bird amusement park. That led them to all types of research and design. Ah, ha! The learning. They set the problem, and the teachers facilitate the research and design process. I think in big companies, they call that the R & D department.

In infancy, this could look a bit like my fourth graders this week. They were working on drawing things to look 3-D, the real skill was looking and thinking. So, as I work individually, I point out to them, over and over, what to do with their shading to make things look more 3-D. Perhaps, what I should be doing is to let them draw their pictures and then after they look at them, they should tell me what the problem is with their work. For some it might be scale and proportion, for others, color clarification and for others 3-dimentional shading. Just as my art ed. professor Dennis Dake always told us, “Like all teachers, we are teaching students to think, it’s just that we are using art to do it.” And here, I thought I was teaching students to make art.

Education will look drastically different if we switch to this way of learning. Students will look different in the classroom. They will be excited and they will apply real life processes and who knows what kind of great things they will be involved with. Will basic skills and information be left behind? Absolutely not! They will have to learn those basic pieces as part of their research process. They will learn to play instruments, to communicate ideas, to make things and do other kinds of artwork. The ideas can go on and on.

As you proceed through the school year, I challenge you to think of ways that you can turn more of the problem identification over to your students. Yes, it’s a longer process, but it is so empowering and it gives our student such a powerful life skill. And isn’t that really what we, as teachers, are here to do? Yes, expressing yourself through your favorite art form is valuable as both a vocation and avocation, and necessary, but I see that delicate balance changing. We are more than painters, singers and actors; we are thinkers. I would appreciate views from more of you on how this would look in your classroom. Our editor, Nancy, keeps trying to encourage me to work this into a Blog, so maybe your responses will be here.

Happy Thinking

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