4 Easy Steps to Solving Problems

By on September 23, 2014

We all want our students to independently solve problems. We want them to self-advocate, be resourceful, and basically take care of business. Teaching students how to problem solve is not always easy. Many of our students want things done for them. Or worse, they want us to fix what is broken or find solutions to their problems. We want to help them. I get it. We love our students, but we must teach them how to solve their own problems.

I have heard this from more than one person: "The point of college is to see if you can finish. The homework and tests are the easy part. The real challenge is getting through the paperwork and jumping through the hoops." When I reflect back on my college experience, I can understand this argument. Although my classes were rigorous, it took true grit to follow through with everything and graduate with a college degree. Getting a job and keeping it isn't much easier, today. Our young workforce must be able to adapt, solve problems, and contribute to the growth of a company. They must be adaptable and part of the solution or they might not have a job.

The Solution Zone

In my workshops, I often talk about what I call a Solution Zone. Teachers find this discussion interesting because they are looking for ways to help their students become more independent and capable of solving their own problems. For me, the Solution Zone is an easy way to establish in my classroom that I care about my students, and because I care, I want them to have solutions to their problems.

Here is how the Solution Zone works. When a student walks up to me with a problem, he or she is entering into the Solution Zone. My students must have a few solutions to their problems before I will listen to them. Let's take the famous ink and printer story. (I truly believe this has taken the "My dog ate my homework" story to a whole new level). Over the past 12 years, I have heard hundreds of students say, "I left my homework on my printer" or "My printer ran out of ink." This is a real problem to be sure, but not a problem that cannot be fixed. I want to hear my students' problems. I want to empathize with them and hear all about their lost backpacks, ink droughts, and late night cram sessions, but I also want to hear solutions.

In my Solution Zone, students need to follow their problems with a solution. It sounds like this: "Mr. LeMaster, last night my printer ran out of ink. My essay was pink and wavy. It looked like a bad bar code. I knew that the assignment was due today, so I woke up early and printed a copy in the school library. Here is my essay." Now, that's a problem worth listening to. A student had a problem and he fixed it. The Solution Zone has worked well for me over the years. I like the simplicity of it, but I have had to teach my students how to be solution oriented. Here are four easy steps to developing solution oriented students.

Step 1: Identify Your Limitations

We all have strengths and weaknesses. The challenge becomes matching our strengths with our weaknesses. Students must learn more about themselves as learners, planners, teammates, and overall students. If a student knows it takes her longer than her peers to complete a task, she needs to use her planner to budget her time. She needs to work on the assignment over several days instead of trying to complete it on Thursday night before it is due. Students who take longer to type should get their drafts completed sooner. Students who lose important papers should take pictures of the work. When students know their limitations, they can begin to make decisions that increase their success. 

Step 2: Evaluate Your Situation

Like knowing your limitations, students need to know their situation at all times. For example, if a student does not have a computer at home (or ink), he or she should be aware of all assignments that require word processing. Secondary and post-secondary teachers will not wave this expectation, so it is up to the student to figure out how he or she will type the assignment. Students need to think about the types of resources that are available at home and take an honest look at how much time is available for schoolwork each day after all other commitments have been met. If students get in the habit of evaluating their situations, they can better understand the types of problems they might encounter. 

Step 3: Predict Potential Problems

As students learn their limitations and understand their situations, they can begin to predict potential problems. When students are given tasks, they should think about what might keep them from being successful. They should think about their limitations as learners and think about their situation at home. This metacognitive process will allow students to identify and respond to issues before they become an actual problem. Students must work to eliminate potential problems as often as possible. 

Step 4: Be Proactive and Resourceful

Sean Covey, in his popular teen book 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, discusses the importance of being proactive. He suggests teens (as well as adults) should respond to issues before they become full fledge problems. He encourages students to be proactive and not reactive because, according to Covey, reactive behavior will often lead to more issues and negative consequences. A proactive student leverages resources to balance limitations and or weaknesses. He or she identifies potential problems and responds to them without being told to do so. Students who are proactive learn to advocate for themselves which is an essential skill to have in life.

What do your students say when they have a problem? What is your reaction? Have you tried the Solution Zone? Share your stories. Get us laughing or crying. Join the conversation and share your experiences with our community of inspired educators.


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