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Success Starts with Critical Thinking and Problem-solving Skills

June 12, 2014


Our educational system is tasked with preparing the next-generation to succeed in life. That’s a tall order and it will substantially fail if it doesn’t teach children how to think critically and solve problems. In a post entitled “STEM Education: Why All the Fuss?,” I wrote, “Educating students in STEM subjects (if taught correctly) prepares students for life, regardless of the profession they choose to follow. Those subjects teach students how to think critically and how to solve problems — skills that can be used throughout life to help them get through tough times and take advantage of opportunities whenever they appear.” I’m not alone in making this assessment. Vince Bertram, President and CEO of Project Lead The Way, Inc., feels the same way. “The United States can no longer excuse its poor academic performance by asserting that students in other nations excel in rote learning, while ours are better at problem solving. Recent test results clearly tell a different story.” [“We Have to Get Serious About Creativity and Problem Solving,” Huffington Post The Blog, 7 May 2014] Naveen Jain, Entrepreneur and Founder of the World Innovation Institute, adds, “Please don’t get me started on ‘No Child Left Behind.’ It might as well be called ‘All Children Left Behind.’ This system of standardized, rote learning that teaches to a test is exactly the type of education our children don’t need in this world that is plagued by systemic, pervasive and confounding global challenges. Today’s education system does not focus enough on teaching children to solve real world problems and is not interdisciplinary, nor collaborative enough in its approach.” [“School’s Out for Summer: Rethinking Education for the 21st Century,” Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2013] He continues:

“Imagine education that is as entertaining and addictive as video games. Sound far-fetched? I believe that this is exactly the idea — driven by dynamic innovation and entrepreneurism — that will help bring our education system out of the stone ages.”

There a numerous examples of how teachers have involved students in problem-solving activities and, as a result, have excited them about education while teaching them how to better cope with the world around them. As Bertram noted above, Americans can no longer boast that we are teaching our children how to solve problems better than the rest of the world. He explains:

“The latest round of international standardized test results showed American students are lagging behind the rest of the developed world not just in math, science and reading, but in problem solving as well. The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test examined 44 countries’ students’ problem-solving abilities — American students landed just above the average, but they still scored below many other developed countries, including Britain, Singapore, Korea, Japan, China and Canada.”

Jeevan Vasagar insists that the data shows that countries that teach their children how to solve problems are more successful than those who don’t. It sounds both obvious and sensible; yet, America seems to have turned its back on that approach. “Education is under pressure to respond to a changing world,” writes Vasagar. “As repetitive tasks are eroded by technology and outsourcing, the ability to solve novel problems has become increasingly vital.” [“Countries that excel at problem-solving encourage critical thinking,” Financial Times, 19 May 2014] He continues:

“Students from the main western European countries – England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium – all performed above the average, as did pupils from the Czech Republic and Estonia. In the rest of the rich world, the US, Canada and Australia also performed above average. But the laurels were taken by east Asian territories; Singapore and South Korea performed best, followed by Japan, and the Chinese regions of Macau and Hong Kong. That result poses a challenge to schools in the west. Critics of east Asian education systems attribute their success at maths and science to rote learning. But the OECD’s assessment suggests that schools in east Asia are developing thinking skills as well as providing a solid grounding in core subjects. Across the world, the OECD study found a strong and positive correlation between performance in problem solving and performance in maths, reading and science. In general, the high-performing students were also the ones best able to cope with unfamiliar situations.”

The lesson that needs to be learned here is that, if you want your child to succeed in life, teach him or her how to think critically and solve problems. The best way to do that is to provide them with a good foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As I noted at the beginning of this article, grounding student in STEM subjects doesn’t mean that other social or liberal arts subjects aren’t important only that STEM subjects teach life-skills that other disciplines don’t. Bertram explains:

“In America, we must make core subjects like math and science relevant for students, and at the same time, foster creativity, curiosity and a passion for problem solving. That’s what STEM education does. STEM is about using math and science to solve real-world challenges and problems. This applied, project-based way of teaching and learning allows students to understand and appreciate the relevancy of their work to their own lives and the world around them. Once they grasp core concepts, students are able to choose a problem and use their own creativity and curiosity to research, design, test and improve a viable solution.”

One of the reasons that I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness, was to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools. As an employer of people with technical skills, I am naturally interested in ensuring that, in the future, I will have an adequate employee pool from which to draw; but, as a parent, I want to ensure that our children are equipped to succeed in a changing world. As I’ve noted in previous articles, many of the jobs our children will asked to fill don’t even exist today. Daisy Christodoulou, an educationalist and the author of Seven Myths about Education, explains that students need exposure to a broad array of disciplines so that they are exposed to the problem-solving skills required in each area. She “argues that such skills are domain specific – they cannot be transferred to an area where our knowledge is limited.” She also believes this will help teach students to think more critically. Vasagar explains:

“Critical thinking is a skill that is impossible to teach directly but must be intertwined with content, Christodoulou argues. … Some argue that placing too strong an emphasis on children acquiring knowledge alone leaves them struggling when faced with more complex problems. Tim Taylor, a former primary school teacher who now trains teachers, says: ‘If you front-load knowledge and leave all the thinking and critical questioning until later, children don’t develop as effective learners.’ There are some generic tools that transfer across disciplines, Taylor argues. ‘What is reading if not a cognitive tool? And that is clearly “transferable”.’ … The way to teach generic skills is to be ‘mindful of it as a teacher’, Taylor suggests. ‘You create opportunities to keep that in the forefront of what you are doing – how is this helping us? How can we use this in another context? That is the point of education, to develop a “growth mindset”,’ he states.”

I agree with Bertram that we must foster educational approaches that appeal to a child’s natural sense of curiosity. He explains:

“Children are born with a natural curiosity. Give a child a toy and watch him or her play for hours. Listen to the questions a child asks. Children have a thirst to understand things. But then they go to school. They are taught how to take tests, how to respond to questions — how to do school. At our own peril, we teach them compliance. We teach them that school isn’t a place for creativity. That must change.”

We are all familiar with the adage “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Too often we are feeding our students instead of teaching them how to feed themselves. The disciplines that do that best are STEM-related.

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