The key was for the children to become more independent and productive as they apply and adapt their thinking when engaging in future complex tasks. This sets up the expectations of the students to understand that the teachers aren’t there to solve problems for them, but to aid them in solving the problems themselves.


“A problem well put is half solved.” ― John Dewey

Real life is complex and the problems in it aren’t well defined, and lack clear solutions. Unfortunately when we present problems in the school setting, they are often linear projections – point A leads to point B, etc. In the real world, it is point A goes to point C then zigzags back to point D and zooms to point J….

This shows that we need to be able to identify and apply various strategies to solve problems.

The crux of the matter is that problem-solving skills do not develop naturally; they need to be clearly taught in a way that can be adopted across multiple settings and contexts.

One of the most important skills that must be taught to our children in this 21st century is problem-solving and in our work in boosting STEM skills at our social enterprise, we are constantly searching for how to bring this home to our children.

In our research, we found the efforts of an elementary school teacher in New Jersey, U.S.A. Ms. Kate Mills taught the equivalent of primary 4 for 10 years and is now a Literacy Interventionist at another primary school. She focused on building her students to grow to become successful outside the classroom.

Her focus from the first day of school was to choose language and activities that foster a classroom culture of problem solvers. And, in order to produce students who are able to think about how to achieve their goals and manage the mental process of achievement (this process is called metacognition), she normalised “trouble.” Research has shown that metacognitive skills help children become better problem solvers.

How does she “normalise trouble” in the classroom? By teaching the importance of struggle in life, acknowledging it, and calling it what it is: A sign of growth.

Ultimately, the children learn to accept challenges and failures as opportunities for refinement.

Ms. Kate Mills looks for every chance to share problems from challenges that other schools once had and then highlight how it is students like themselves, not their teachers or parents, that solved these. She however did not downplay the fact that they had guidance from adults along the way.

The key was for the children to become more independent and productive as they apply and adapt their thinking when engaging in future complex tasks. This sets up the expectations of the students to understand that the teachers aren’t there to solve problems for them, but to aid them in solving the problems themselves.

She utilises a powerful method in deploying the essence of pushing through the problem solving process. She shows a broken escalator video to her students and in it is a man who got confused when his escalator broke down as he rode it. The children are perplexed about why he just didn’t get off the escalator. Mills explained to them that a lot of us call for help when we are stuck, instead of embracing the challenge that has arisen and seeking new ways to work through it.

Research shows that just because children know the strategies for problem solving does not mean they will engage the appropriate strategies. Therefore, we should encourage them by providing opportunities where they can explicitly practice learning why, when and how to use these strategies properly in order for them to become autonomous learners.

As an a educator and a parent, I appreciate and focus on modeling the lessons from the learning experience stated above to encourage our children to becoming problem solvers. Our desire is dwell upon the value of going beyond working harder by doing it smarter, trying new and different strategies and revising the process.

When they do this, they are more successful all around.

Adetola Salau, Carismalife4U@gmail.com, an advocate of STEM education, public speaker, author, and social entrepreneur, is passionate about education reform.