Susan has taught high school English and has worked as a school administrator. She has a doctorate in Educational Leadership.
What Is the Problem-Solving Cycle?
The problem-solving cycle is an approach to problem solving that includes clearly defined steps, which allow organizations, including schools, to implement a consistent approach to problem solving. Today, you will be presented with a scenario that illustrates all the steps in the problem-solving process.
Define the Problem
The first step of the problem-solving cycle is to define the problem. What is the problem you're trying to solve? It is important to identify a problem after careful consideration of existing data, or the information that's gathered for analysis. Examples of data within schools include test scores, staff evaluation ratings, teachers' recorded observations of students, information gathered from surveys, demographic information, and attendance records. Through careful analysis of this information, you will be able to identify a problem or a need to which you and/or your team would like to devote your attention.
You may discover there are multiple problems to solve. In this case, it's wise to prioritize the problems, which involves identifying which problems require the most immediate attention. Let's look at a scenario that shows how defining the problem works.
After the open house for the upcoming school year, many staff members expressed concern about a lack of parent attendance. After pulling attendance logs from each of the classroom teachers, you recognize there was a significant decrease in parent participation from last year's open house (66% participation) to this year's open house (33% participation). Recognizing that parental involvement is an important factor in student achievement, you decide to focus on this problem and continue to work through the problem-solving cycle.
Brainstorm & Pick a Solution
Now that you've identified the problem, the second step of the problem-solving cycle is to brainstorm solutions. How can you improve the current situation? Brainstorming should be a collaborative process with the team. Record all possible solutions. This will help you move forward to the next step in the process. Here's an example showing how you can brainstorm solutions.
You and your team engage in a brainstorming session during the school improvement team meeting. Possible solutions include:
- Changing the date and/or time of the open house
- Sending out a parent survey to solicit feedback
- Hosting multiple open house nights
- Increasing communication with families prior to the open house
- Collaborating with local organizations to avoid conflicts on the night of the open house
Now that you've engaged in a brainstorming session, the third step of the problem-solving cycle is to pick a solution. Which of the proposed solutions is the most feasible at this time? Which solution would likely yield the most useful data? These are important questions to consider when making this determination.
At this point in the process, you should also develop a goal. A goal is a target you would like to achieve. This should be specific to the solution you have selected. Let's look at a scenario that illustrates how this works.
After further consideration, you and your team decide you should start by getting to the root of the problem. This is best accomplished by going straight to the source: the parents. While you may decide to make other changes for the next open house, you decide to begin by sending out a parent survey. The survey will provide parents an opportunity to explain why they did or did not attend the open house. Since you have decided to implement a parent survey, you and your team develop the following goal: Obtain at least 70% parent participation in the online survey.
Implementing the Solution
Implementing the solution is the fourth step of the problem-solving cycle, and it's typically the most time-intensive part of the process. You and your team should develop a series of action steps that you will take as you implement the solution. Be mindful of any resources that will be required to successfully implement these action steps. These resources may include, but are not limited to: people, money, materials (academic or otherwise), modes of communication, and other organizations. Always include deadlines for each of the action steps to ensure that you will successfully implement your plan.
Here's an example showing this step in action. You and your team decide on the following action steps:
- The team will collaborate to develop the survey (within one week).
- The team will meet again in seven days to review and finalize the survey.
- The chair will submit the survey to the district administration for approval.
- Once the survey is approved, the co-chair will send out the survey to all parents. Results will be time-stamped and recorded by the survey platform.
- The team will meet within one week after the survey response deadline to review and analyze results.
Review the Results
The fifth step of the problem-solving cycle is to review the results. Was your solution successful? Did you meet your goal? It's imperative to evaluate your success using the data you have collected throughout the process.
After you evaluate your current solution, you can begin to discuss how you will move forward in the problem-solving cycle. You may decide to continue working on the same problem, or you may decide to shift your efforts to another identified problem. Let's return to our open house scenario to show how this step works.
You reached your goal of parent participation in the survey. Seventy-three percent of parents responded to the survey. You review the results of the survey, and a majority of the parent responses indicate that the start time of 6:00 p.m. was not convenient. A majority of parents also indicated that they did not receive communication about the open house with enough notice to make necessary scheduling arrangements. You and the team decide to begin the problem-solving cycle again with these newly identified problems.
As we discussed, the problem-solving cycle is an approach to problem solving that includes a series of well-defined steps. The problem-solving cycle includes a total of five steps:
- Define the problem
- Brainstorm solutions
- Pick a solution
- Implement the solution
- Review the results
Problems should always be identified through careful data analysis. Likewise, solutions should be evaluated by analyzing data collected throughout the problem-solving cycle. If you and your team follow the steps in the cycle with integrity, you will begin to notice positive change as a result of your efforts.
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