Problem Finding, Problem Solving, and Decision Making: Critical Skills in Today’s World

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.

Problem Finding, Problem Solving, and Decision Making

Note: This blog post was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are publishing it now because the content remains relevant.

As human beings, we naturally think creatively, reason critically, make decisions, and solve problems. The survival of our DNA demands it. However, in today’s world, the complexities of life go well beyond basic needs to seek out food, find shelter, and avoid predators. Solving the problems of today requires much more complex and sophisticated levels of thinking and producing.

Typically, in the classroom we ask students to find answers to problems, a relatively low level of thinking. This line of thinking is analogous to putting out fires, rather than preventing them. Teaching students the process of problem-finding and -solving gives them the tools they need to define problems, think proactively, and achieve higher-quality outcomes. Successful problem-finders and -solvers and decision-makers view problems through many lenses and varied perspectives. Their traits include:

  • Curiosity: wanting to know more
  • Flexibility: thinking of things in different ways
  • Listening for what’s NOT said or seeing what’s not there: hearing the unspoken, seeing the unknown
  • Persistence and patience: putting effort forward until an answer can be achieved
  • Ability to defer judgment: taking time to think, not objecting to any ideas
  • Reflectivity: reviewing what worked and what didn’t work and figuring out why

A method for solving problems is the I-FORD process.

Strategies for Problem Solving

Define or shape the problem. What is the goal you want to achieve?

Gather the facts and data you need to make the best decision. Examples of questions students may ask include:

  • What could be causing the problem
  • Where is it happening?
  • When is it happening?
  • How is it happening?
  • With whom is it happening?
  • Why is it happening?
  • Who is it affecting
  • Why does it matter?

List possible solutions or strategies to solve the problem. Brainstorming is an effective tool to use:

  • Generate as many ideas as possible.
  • Avoid evaluating ideas until all have been shared.
  • Work quickly to not allow time for judgment.
  • Connect to others’ ideas.

Priority LadderRank Your Options
Rate, rank, and test your options and strategies. Teach students how to use a Priority Ladder to help them prioritize their ideas.

Make your decision and implement and evaluate your solution. Questions students can ask at this point include:

  • Did I solve the problem? If not, what do I need to do differently?
  • Was the action I took effective and efficient?
  • What did I learn from this problem-solving activity?
  • Does my answer make sense?
  • Could I have solved this problem another way?

Problem-Solving Process

Problem-finding, problem-solving, and decision-making can be a scary process—there may be no clear and definitive answers. That’s the beauty of the process: we’re teaching kids to be risk-takers. Using authentic or real problems can encourage kids to be good problem-finders and -solvers and decision-makers. I encourage you to look to your students’ immediate work to find the issues your kids would enjoy finding solutions to.

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

Differentiation For Gifted Learners

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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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