Teaching Students to Think for Themselves, Solve Problems and Think Critically
By: Steve Gratz
I spent most of my teenage years working on the farm. My experiences there naturally taught me how to solve problems, and we referred to this as “common sense.” We would even use the term to describe our more astute neighbors and friends who used good sense and sound judgment in practical matters.
As I think about my days working on the farm, I realize the agricultural way of life was built on a solid foundation of solving problems. Confronted with a unique problem, I could engineer a solution or temporarily jerry-rig it until I could get back to the shop for a permanent solution. I also remember the time one of my friends made a delivery of construction materials to a client and during the delivery he realized that he forgot a large box of nails. Instead of driving 30-miles back to the company, he simply purchased the large box of nails at a competitor’s store. He used good sense and sound judgment – common sense.
Like many of my friends, I developed my problem-solving skillset through work-based learning experiences throughout high school. In fact, I can’t remember a time during high school where I wasn’t working and serendipitously honing my ability to solve problems in the context of real-world situations.
In my 30+ years of education, I have participated in my fair share of philosophical conversations. Most of these conversations focus on the teaching and learning process, but the conversations often bleed over to a more holistic discussion on education. Some of those conversations focus on how to teach students deeper thinking skills and the ability to solve problems.
One of the most authentic ways to help students develop deeper thinking skills and the ability to solve problems is through work-based learning experiences. Recently, I was meeting with education and business leaders at the North Central Ohio ESC. A local physician shared that one of his recent hires earned her medical assistant credential through her work experience and not through the traditional path of attending medical assistant training program.
Absent of the ability to have work-based learning experiences, educators can help students develop deeper thinking skills and the ability to solve problems by requiring them to solve realistic problems. This can be done easily by using the project-based learning approach promoted by organizations like the Buck Institute. Another example is the Southern Region Education Board’s Advanced Career model. Most project-based learning approaches call for designing and implementing challenging, authentic projects and assignments in the context of realistic problems, ideally with employer and business involvement.
The passage of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) marked a major step toward ensuring all students are prepared to graduate from high school ready for college and careers. For example, districts may support efforts to integrate academic and technical content in the classroom that lends itself to students developing deeper thinking skills and the ability to solve problems. This can be done simply by developing and implementing coordinated instructional strategies that may include project-based learning and experiential learning opportunities for in-demand careers and occupations.
Here’s an example that provides a real-world application using the Pythagorean theorem. The picture below shows the formula for the Pythagorean theorem. In the picture below, side C is always the hypotenuse. Remember that this formula only applies to right triangles.
Students may be taught the Pythagorean theorem as illustrated, or the lesson could be enriched by making it a real-world application or, better yet, as part of a project-based lesson.
And here is how the theory is applied to roof framing in the construction industry where the Pythagorean theorem is referred to as the 3-4-5 rule.
This example is overly simple, but it is used to illustrate how connecting academic content standards to real-world applications can make the teaching and learning process more engaging and relevant for students. By helping students solve more real-world problems, students should begin to think more deeply about the standards they are learning.
One of the tenets of project-based learning is that the teacher helps students navigate through the learning process and assists students in solving problems, allowing them to take more responsibility for their learning – effectively teaching them to think for themselves. Teaching students to think more critically and to solve problems is a life skill that is immeasurably valuable to students.
I’m indifferent if it is called common sense, good sense and sound judgment, or the ability to solve problems; it is a life skill that needs to be integrated into all aspects of student’s education. It can even instill a sense of confidence in students, especially as they learn to apply this life skill to other aspects of their life.
Let’s teach students to think for themselves, solve problems and think critically.
Dr. Steve Gratz is senior executive director of the Center for Student Support and Education Options at the Ohio Department of Education, where he oversees creative ways to help students in Ohio achieve success in school. You can learn more about Steve by clicking here.