Why Problems Are a Good Thing

What we know about problem solving does not always coincide with the way we view problem solving. Even the word problem typically brings about a negative connotation. When talking about problem solving, however, a problem really just means something that we haven’t completely mastered or figured out yet. Problems can be great things. This is the idea that seems to be lacking in the culture of most schools. Adults like to be right and feel confident that the way they are doing something is the correct way. This desire to be correct is easily transferred over to students if special attention is not given to this idea. Problem solving is not only a way to learn, but it is the best way to learn. A child is much more likely to remember the way they did a math problem correctly if they did it incorrectly 10 times before they succeeded. Cognitive neuroscience is finally able to give proof that mistakes improve memory pathways. By holding to a culture that is afraid of mistakes and the need to be right, our children will never feel the security and comfort that they need to fully accept uncertainty and attempt to solve a problem without fear of failure.

Directly related to this is cognitive modeling. Just as the culture around problem solving is originally modeled by the adult and then adopted by the child, modeling can be a very powerful tool. Cognitive modeling specifically means that the teacher verbally communicates thoughts with the child. For example, when a student solves a math problem incorrectly, instead of telling him the answer or asking him to do it again, the teacher might work through it with him talking his way through it. During the discussion the adult must move at a speed at which the child can understand and use the same methods that we wish the child to use. For another example, when a student asks what a word means, the response might be, “Hmm, I wonder where I could find that word…maybe the dictionary. I’ll look and see.” Verbally communicating the thought process helps the student create their own internal dialogue. As children develop, many of their actions are social and then become psychological. By providing your own internal dialogue for the student to hear, they are socially mimicking you until it becomes psychological and they do it on their own.

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