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5 Strategies for Engaging Students as Creative Problem Solvers

When a popular lake in Arvada, Colorado, was closed to the public because of an algae bloom, a student asked his science teacher what could be done. His question was the catalyst for a deep dive into creative problem solving that engaged 200 sixth-graders, four teachers, experts from the local water department, and other community members.

“If school was like this more often,” one of the students told us, “kids would be more interested and involved in their education.”

We couldn’t agree more. This is the kind of learning experience that not only addresses important academic goals, but also deepens students’ capacity to be self-directed, creative problem solvers.

Creative problem solving represents the fundamental shift underway in education from a system that requires and produces compliant workers to an ecosystem that cultivates self-directed problem seekers and solution finders. In a recent conversation, creativity expert Daniel Pink told us that problem seeking is becoming even more important than problem solving. Pink explained, “With the advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence, the really important question is, ‘What is the right problem to solve?’ We have all this data, so what is an interesting question we can ask of it?”

Getting good at problem solving (and problem seeking) takes time. From elementary through high school, students need to build their creative problem solving “muscle.” That’s how they cultivate the curiosity needed to identify problems worth solving and acquire the skillset to design and implement creative solutions.

How do we ensure that all students have multiple experiences to engage with real-world problems that matter to them? Here are five strategies to consider.

  1. Make connections. Instead of trying to shoehorn problem solving into content silos, focus on contexts that students find inherently interesting. Sustainability, invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship are examples of contexts that will spark students’ curiosity and deepen their engagement in learning. They all require interdisciplinary thinking to reach solutions and get others on board as allies.
  2. Commit to civic engagement. A healthy democracy depends on informed, engaged citizens. At this polarized moment, it’s more important than ever that students learn to assess information for accuracy or bias, understand perspectives different from their own, and learn how to work within our power structures toward desired change. These skills are too important to limit to high school civics or for extracurricular activities that reach only a few students. Instead, look for entry points to engage young citizens across grade levels and content areas. The possibilities are endless—from students advocating for sidewalks to hosting community forums about local issues. Students can partner with school leaders and teachers to reduce the carbon footprint of their school building.
  3. Grow your green light culture. In an earlier post, we described the system culture that enables innovation among adults. Just as it’s important for teachers to know that they have the green light to take risks and try new strategies, students also need to know that their curiosity is valued and that their “wild ideas” just might lead to breakthrough solutions.
  4. Support teachers. To scale the innovative learning experiences we’re advocating, teachers will need to adopt new pedagogies and assessment strategies. Instructional leaders can support their growth by offering professional development that focuses on high-interest contexts like sustainability, invention, or civic engagement. To enable interdisciplinary learning, teachers will need time to plan with colleagues across content areas. Leaders can also shine a spotlight on learning experiences that give students room to be self-directed creative problem solvers.
  5. Enlist partners. When the community is the curriculum, students learn by tackling challenges close to home. Parents, community organizations, and local businesses can help students identify challenges to tackle together. Students will build their problem-solving skills with the help of mentors, and community partners will get help on solving real-world issues. Everybody benefits.

Written by

Ken Kay and Suzie Boss are the co-authors of Redefining Student Success: Building a New Vision to Transform Leading, Teaching, and Learning. You can access the free companion guides for students and parents (available in both English and Spanish) online. Their book includes dozens of examples of students who are learning by tackling real-world challenges, along with resources to support teachers as they adopt new approaches to transform teaching and learning.

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