Cultivating Problem-Solving in Middle School Students

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

In this lesson, we will look at strategies for teaching middle school students how to apply problem-solving in a variety of content areas. As part of this, we will also discuss scaffolding students who may struggle to apply problem-solving in your content area.

Problem-solving Skills

When we think of problem-solving, many of our minds jump to the dreaded word problems in math class. Some of us may have easily wrapped our heads around dissecting and solving the problem. Some of us may have begged our friends for help.

Today, teaching problem-solving in our classrooms goes beyond focusing on math word problems. Problem-solving is a skill that cuts across all disciplines and is one of the most crucial skills that we, as educators, need to ingrain in our students.

The Problem-Solving Process for Any Content Area

Start by teaching students the basic process of problem-solving, or developing a solution to an identified problem.

Step 1: Understand the Problem

The first step is for students to understand the problem itself. Depending on the nature of the problem, this could require additional research. For example, if the problem relates to rules regarding student parking at a school, students would need to research the existing rules and the rationale behind them. Then they could move forward with the problem-solving process.

Step 2: Identify Barriers

Next is an often-overlooked step: having students identify any barriers between them and a solution. A barrier is any impediment that stands between the student and their creation of a solution to the problem. It is important to place the barriers front and center so they can be addressed.

Sometimes these barriers are mental, such as when a student says, 'I can't do the math'. As a teacher, you may need to provide positive reinforcement or determine what other scaffolding strategies to put into place to help the student. You may want to work with your guidance counselor, or other content teachers depending on the nature of the psychological barrier.

Other times barriers may be financial. The actual cost of developing or testing the solution may be cost prohibitive. You may want to secure funding through a grant or community sponsor. If students know there are funds in place to test their solution, they will have more buy in to the problem-solving process.

Teaching Problem-Solving
Teaching Problem-Solving

Step 3: Look for Solutions

Third, students need to look for possible solutions to the problem. They may try creating tables or guesstimating a solution. Guesstimating is using trial and error to devise a solution. They may need to be more visual and create a mind-map. Sometimes they may prefer to test their proposed solutions in a simulation, by using manipulatives to recreate the problem and solution.

Whatever road they take, students will have to test and evaluate the result of their solution based on the data they collect. Their evaluation may lead them to revise their solutions, which is a normal part of the problem-solving process.

Opportunities for Problem-solving in the Classroom

In the math classroom, word problems usually present the most straightforward opportunity for students to engage in problem-solving strategies. For example, you could divide your class into teams and give each team a similar word problem that's been adjusted to meet the skill level of each student group. As a team, the students would work through the problem, following the steps in the problem-solving process. Then the teams would model their solution to the class. They will, in all likelihood, find different paths to their solutions.

Opportunities to Teach Problem-Solving
Opportunities to Problem-Solve

Social studies can provide creative ways to integrate the problem-solving process. For example, a study of World War II could require students to analyze a particular battle from a military perspective. Students would need to create plans of attack for the battle itself. Then the battle could be 'recreated' in the classroom by using paper balls and desks to simulate trench warfare. During each simulation, students could collect data based on deaths and injuries. Next, students would test and evaluate another team's proposed solution, ultimately determining which team had the most effective solution to fighting the battle.

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