Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

I’ve been reacquainted with an old friend just recently.  His name, Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap.  I reread his book and was, once more, impressed with his message for education.  In particular, I was impressed with what he refers to as the seven survival skills our children will need to be successful in this increasingly changing world.  I was so impressed in fact that I felt I needed to get down the skills in this blog.  Writing often helps me clarify my thinking on a topic.  Perhaps someone will even read this and want to pick up the book.  I highly recommend it.

This post will focus strictly on the first of the survival skills, one fundamental to success in this changing economy, Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving.  I remember the term problem solving from when I was in school.  It was a Math block, usually reserved for Friday, right after morning recess.  During this time, the teacher would show us some word problems involving whichever Math process we were studying at the time. We would fill in the numbers and calculate.  Then, true to the terminology, we would solve the problem, ensuring the answer was written in a full sentence with a capital and a period for full marks.  I’m not sure we were hitting the mark here, how about you?

Firstly, critical thinking and problem solving is not reserved for Math, it can certainly have a very important place within the math curriculum but Mathematics is not the sole repository for the teaching of these skills.  In Wagner’s book, he interviews many top corporate CEO’s in Fortune 500 companies and asks them what they mean by theses skills.  Guess what?  Not one of them referred to Mathematics.  All of the figures who spoke with Wagner, seemed to have some real commonalities in regards to what they felt were important traits in potential employees and one was the ability to problem solve, critically.  They saw the  importance of taking problematic situations down to their roots , from where they stem from and not accepting prior conclusions.  It involves a certain messiness.  As an aside, this messiness would be very difficult to test in a 2 hour, multiple choice exam . . . but that is a topic for a different day.  Annmarie Neale, VP at Cisco Systems, really focused on the importance of revisiting problems and looking at them from a different perspective.  One of the lines that she used that I simply love is that we need to approach problems as a learner, not as a knower.    Yesterday’s solution does not solve tomorrow’s problem.

So, where do we start?  How do we massage and encourage critical thinking in our schools?  I believe that we need to start by throwing away the idea that there is one right answer . . . and it’s in the back of the book.  I know, I stole this from Ken Robinson – what can I say, I am shameless.  We need to encourage open,  challenging environments where great questions are put on a pedestal for all to admire and grapple with.  We need to stop our students from equating success to a high test grade, especially when the test measures linear thinking and knowledge regurgitation only.  We need to encourage the rigor of tangling with a problem where there is not one answer, but rather a load of possibilities and all are honored.  We need to encourage our future leaders to ask the hard questions and to look at knowledge through the critical lenses of fluidity instead of the traditional lenses of static knowledge.

So, that’s what I am thinking about right now.

On another note, watch this video.  It is worth the time and may fly in the face of what you think.  I know it got me defensive at first but it made me think . . . critically!

Why I Hate School but Love Education

Keep learning


Interesting Reads

Mindsets - Carol Dweck
Teaching Boys who struggle in School - Kathleen Palmer Cleveland
Drive - Daniel Pink
Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell



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  1. Dave Sheehan

    I love the video link Dave. It reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas on the importance of fostering and feeding students’ passions. There are many ways to reach our full potential or become “fully alive” and our schools serve students well when we encourage and HELP students to pursue their passions. Like the video says though, inevitably our exams often do not fit this mould and the further we go in our education careers, the more exams become the measuring stick of success.

    • Dave Dempsey

      Thanks for your response Dave. I loved that link as well. It really spoke to me and actually made me relook at my practice and how our schools run. Now that my own daughter is at an age where she is entering University, I had her watch the video – she also liked it. She especially liked the final quote which stated that she wll not be defined by a grade on a test. Powerful message to all of our students – don’t let others define you or your potential.

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