What’s the Problem with Our Children’s Problem Solving Skills

Image credit: Stuart Miles / freedigitalphotos.net
Image credit: Stuart Miles / freedigitalphotos.net

A report on CNN announced that a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 15 year olds in Asia are better problem solvers than in the US. Although Malaysia was included in the 44 countries that participated in the study, we did not make it into the top 25 countries for problem solving. Hmmm… that’s worrying.

What’s the deal with problem solving ability?

The OECD believes that the “ability to crack complex problems is key to the economic success in the future” and that “today’s 15-year-olds with poor problem-solving skills will become tomorrow’s adults struggling to find or keep a good job”.

PISA reveals that even in the best-performing countries, significant numbers of 15-year-olds do not have the basic problem-solving skills considered necessary to succeed in today’s – let alone tomorrow’s – world. – PISA in Focus 38

According to James Lehman (child behavioural therapist), the trouble with poor problem solving skills begins a lot earlier. Children with poor problem solving skills can’t handle many of the situations that life throws at them. As a result, they regress to negative childish behaviours and act out as a way of coping.

Regardless of where the difficulties begin, poor problem solving skills can be a life-long stumbling block unless we intervene and do something to help our children develop these skills.

What problems were the students tested with?

In the study by the OECD, 15 year old students from 44 countries were given a series of problems to solve. Some of the typical problems they had to face are highlighted here:

  • using an unfamiliar mobile phone or a ticket-vending machine
  • choosing the right pain killer given sufficient details about the patient, their complaints and the available pain killers
  • solve scheduling problems for projects such as building a house or generating a flight schedule for an airline
  • plan a seating plan for a birthday party according to the wishes of the individual party guests

See the report for more details.

What’s the problem with problem solving?

According to the report, ‘one in five students in the OECD countries is only able to solve “very straightforward problems — if any — provided they refer to familiar situations’ but when these same students were put in ‘new situations and asked to solve unfamiliar problems’, they couldn’t.

For example, 56% of students in Korea and Singapore but only 31% of students in OECD countries, on average, can troubleshoot an unfamiliar device that is malfunctioning (a task at Level 4 on the PISA proficiency scale). They grasp the links among the elements of the problem situation; they can plan a few steps ahead and adjust their plans in light of feedback; and they can form a hypothesis about why a device is malfunctioning and describe how to test it. By contrast, in the lowest-performing countries, more than 50% of students are only able to solve very simple problems that do not require them to think ahead and that are cast in familiar settings –such as determining, through trial-and-error, which solution among a limited set of alternatives best meets a single criterion (tasks at Level 1 on the proficiency scale). – PISA in Focus 38

This is the part the piqued my interest – the ability to solve novel problems sounds a lot like fluid intelligence to me. Remember that fluid intelligence is “the ability to reason and to solve new problems independently of previously acquired knowledge”. It includes:

  • Novel reasoning and problem solving
  • Ability to reason, form concepts, and solve problems that often include novel information or procedures
  • Basic reasoning processes that depend minimally on learning and acculturation
  • Manipulating abstractions, rules, generalizations, and logical relations

Novel Problem Solving Ability = Fluid Intelligence

If the ability to solve novel problems can be equated to fluid intelligence, then we are back to the conundrum of increasing fluid intelligence that we discussed some time back. Since Singapore, Korea, Japan and China have been rated the top 4 in problem solving, then what they are doing in their schools is obviously working. Wouldn’t I give my right arm to find out what that is…

Developing Problem Solving Skills

If your children is in one of the under-performing countries, you might be wondering what you can do to help them develop those problem solving skills they will need to be successful in life. Well, we’ve already seen how physical activity can help with fluid intelligence, but what else can we do?

Use Teaching Strategies that Support Problem Solving:

  • encourage children to describe the problems they encounter
  • give children time to come up with their own solutions – resist the urge to swoop in and “save the day” with a solution.
  • talk to the children about what is and is not working
  • assist children who are frustrated – although we should give children time to come up with their own solutions, there are times when we need to step in to help, such as when their frustration is affecting their ability to come up with a solution.

Problem Solving Games and Activities

If the brain is like a muscle we can exercise, and fluid intelligence is our ability to solve unfamiliar problems, then perhaps the key is to continually challenge ourselves with new puzzles. The moment the learning curve for a new puzzle begins to level out it’s time to change to a new puzzle. For example, instead of playing “Where’s My Water” over and over, change the game when you start to feel familiar with the “routine”. Here are some apps that will test your problem solving skills that you can try if you haven’t already.

Exposing your children to strategy games, like Chess, and projects that require them to actively come up with solutions to problems, such as community initiatives where they will be given responsibilities, can also help them practice their problem solving skills.

In this age of over-parenting, helicopter parenting, and snow-plough parenting, it might also be worthwhile to remember that we are not required to provide all the solutions to our children’s problems. Sometimes we need to step back and observe – even if it means having to watch our children make mistakes because sometimes, some of the best lessons can be learned from a mistake.

Teaching Children How to Think

In his book “Teach Your Children How to Think“, Edward de Bono explains why thinking skills need to be taught. By teaching children how to think, I believe we can also help them become better problem solvers at the same time.

Other articles and resources on teaching problem solving to children:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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