Increasing Rigor with Ill-Structured Problems

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Increasing Rigor with Ill-Structured ProblemsThe world is full of complicated problems. There are no easy solutions to many worldwide problems or the day-to-day problems we all face. Being able to work through these problems and find meaningful resolutions is one of the most powerful skills our children can possess to be successful in their futures.

Some problems we face, whether worldwide or in everyday life, are considered “ill-structured problems” (ISPs). ISPs can be found in all areas of life. They are problems that lack structure, have unclear goals, usually have incomplete information, and do not have clear desired solutions. Solving ISPs can have a profound effect on engaging and motivating students.

The kinds of problems students encounter in school usually have little to do with the problems they will need to solve in everyday life. Well-structured problems (WSPs)—problems with discernable solutions—are typical problems students address in school. However, the world abounds with problems that have no clear or apparent remedies. Working with ISPs challenges students to think divergently, work collaboratively, authentically apply skills and strategies in new and unfamiliar contexts, and evaluate implications of solutions.

The ISP method encourages students to pose worthy questions, propose hypotheses, make predictions, use tools of the discipline to gather and analyze data, generate inferences using empirical evidence, construct arguments supported by a broad array of reasoning strategies, and communicate their findings.

Here is how it works:

  1. Start with your content. Consider the topics you are covering or topics of interest to students. For example, I worked with a group of students studying natural disasters. The content I wanted students to gain a greater understanding of was how nature affects humans and how humans affect nature. Coming up with the big idea for the content is essential, because it will move students from working at the lower levels of content (factual knowledge) to procedural and conceptual levels of knowledge.
  2. Collect news or science magazine articles that relate to the topic. Some of my favorite places to look for such articles are in local and national newspapers as well as in Scientific American. Be sure to preview articles for appropriateness of language and readability levels. Don’t worry about having to define vocabulary for students before they read the article—confronting unfamiliar language is part of the learning experience. Additionally, don’t be concerned about students’ prior knowledge of the topic, as this too is part of the journey. For the natural disasters example, I selected an article regarding how flooding will threaten millions of people in the next 25 years unless climate change is addressed.
  3. Have students read the article. Instruct them to note what they think is the overarching problem stated in the article. Make sure they highlight statements within the article that support their claim of what the problem is. This step can be done as a whole group, in small groups, or individually, depending on the age and proficiencies of your students. As students encounter unfamiliar language or vocabulary in the article, provide them the resources and opportunities to clarify meaning. In my example, there were no less than 10 vocabulary words and phrases my students didn’t know—so we all went on a journey to find the answers. Additionally, my students read the article at least five times, using close reading strategies to truly understand the author’s point of view, the language of the discipline, any bias the author has, and so on.
  4. Share all the problems students found within the article. In the natural disasters article I gave my students, they found more than 15 different problems that they could support with textual evidence. It was interesting to listen to students debate the validity and intersections of all the problems.
  5. Select a problem and assign students to seek solutions. You can have students work as a class, in small groups, or individually. My students used the I-FORD method to problem-solving (Cash, 2017):
    • Identify the problem and consider what goal you want to achieve.
    • Fact and data gathering is critical to finding a workable solution.
    • Options for possible solutions are listed out.
    • Rank the options from good to great, from most costly to least costly, or from greatest impact to least impact. The ranking should lead you to the best solution.
    • Decide which of the options will make the best solution. Keep in mind that the solution should be feasible, realistic, and cost-effective.
  6. Have students share their thinking processes and solutions. My students worked in groups and created a “best option” competition, which was judged by a local climate change expert. If you can, involve an authentic audience in the final product sharing—this gives the entire experience the real feel it deserves.

Using the ISP method is a great way to get your students to collaborate and engage in designing new approaches to solving unique problems. It also is a powerful way to authentically incorporate the skills and knowledge students have learned. Make learning relevant and meaningful by using ill-structured problems often in your classroom.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition

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Cash, Richard M. Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century (Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2017): 197.

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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