Rethinking problem solving

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Increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know. The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today. — Tony Wagner [1]

Problem solving has been identified as an essential skill for success in the 21st Century [2]. I certainly agree. Problem solving is high on my list of essential outcomes we need to cultivate for students to be productive, engaged citizens. After all, we live in a world that is constantly changing. The challenges we face are complex, requiring a delicate balance between multiple, and often divergent, perspectives and competing needs. Who could dispute the self-evident fact that problem solving is a critical skill? It seems so straightforward. Or so I thought.

Then, I encountered Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators and Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. Both authors really pushed me to think more deeply about the meaning that I attach to “problem-solving” and how I apply it to my vision for 21st Century Learning.

Citing The Conference Board’s 2008 Research Report, “Ready to Innovate: Are Educators and Executives Aligned on the Creative Readiness of the U.S. Workforce? [3] Pink highlights the divergence between 155 public school superintendents and eighty nine private employers’ rankings of essential skills for the 21st Century workplace. When asked what was the most important skill for future success, superintendents placed problem-solving at the top of their lists (private employers ranked it eighth); on other hand, employers ranked “problem identification” as the most critical skill. [4]

What is going on here? I began to question the way that I tend to think about “problem-solving.” I realize that I have used this term as shorthand for the process…well, of actually solving problems. The concept of “problem-solving,” as I have thought about it, places more emphasis on the result, on the outcome — the solution. In short, arriving at the correct answer, based on what one knows.

Pink’s analysis of “problem identification,” calls upon deeper thinking and a much more complex process of “asking questions, uncovering possibilities, surfacing latent issues and finding unexpected problems.” It is the difference between the “creative, heuristic, problem-finding skills of artists” and “the reductive, algorithmic, problem-solving of technicians.” [5]

Pink and Wagner link creativity and working through the process of solving new problems. It is not superior knowledge used to arrive at the right answer, but rather how to apply knowledge to discover new perspectives and to think creatively about real world challenges.

Their work has nudged me to develop a more complicated notion of problem solving as the creative process of thinking — asking questions, gathering and evaluating information, looking at issues from different perspectives, discovering unexpected possibilities along the way.

What do you think is the most essential skill for our students to become productive, engaged citizens of the 21st Century? Please feel free to share your comments, questions, and perspectives.

[1] Wagner, Tony (2012-04-17). Creating Innovators (Kindle Locations 2830-2832). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[2] See The Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework for 21st Century Learning; Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills for the 21st Century.

[3] http:// http://www.artsusa.org/ pdf/ information_services/ research/ policy_roundtable/ readytoinnovatefull.pdf. Pink, Daniel H. (2012-12-31). To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (Kindle Locations 3186-3187). Riverhead Hardcover. Kindle Edition.

[4] Pink, Daniel, (2012-12-31). To Sell Is Human (Kindle Locations 1709-1710).

[5] Pink, Daniel, (2012-12-31). To Sell Is Human (Kindle Locations 1715, 1672)

One thought on “Rethinking problem solving

  1. Pingback: On the moral obligation of sharing | Jennie's Blog

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