Want to develop your pupils’ problem-solving skills? Here’s the solution

Problem-solving isn’t confined to maths or science – it’s important throughout the curriculum, and throughout life

When children enter school in the early years, they are frequently put into problem-solving situations. They are encouraged to find solutions through hands-on play, to ask questions and to think in different ways.

Then they enter Year 1 and the focus changes. Instead of asking pupils to solve problems in their own time and in their own way, teachers are preparing them for phonics tests and the upcoming Sats in Year 2.

By the time these children reach Year 6, they have been through countless tests and may have lost their enthusiasm for problem-solving. They may also have lost confidence in wanting to try for fear they will fail or not score "highly enough".

I'm sure I am not the first teacher who struggles to fit the test content into the year, let alone opportunities to problem-solve. If we want our children to develop the necessary life skills for a brighter future, to believe in themselves and to grow in confidence, we need to move away from a constant testing culture to one that focuses on inspiring a desire to learn, a desire to investigate and to not be afraid of making mistakes.

Skills for life

Problem-solving is a vital part of learning and should be given more attention in our teaching. The skills it develops will also enable students to become more robust and capable when they come to be tested. I have seen countless pupils sit the maths Sats reasoning paper, look at the problem and not even attempt it. These children have not developed the skills to find a starting point and the perseverance to puzzle out an answer. Problem-solving should be a daily feature of classroom life, in every subject and no matter what age pupils are.

Problem-solving isn't confined to maths or science - it's important throughout the curriculum, and throughout life. Through problem-solving, children develop their ability to bounce back, to be resilient and to understand that it is normal to make mistakes. They develop their independence and ability to think for themselves. They develop their self-esteem and ability to persevere.

As teachers, we can help develop problem-solving skills in our pupils in many ways. Here are some techniques that can be used daily with any age group, and which can work even amid the stresses and pressures of tests. 

Classroom climate

I have a sign up in my classroom that says: "Stuck? Good!" Many children enter my room on the first day of term and say: "Your sign isn't very nice. Why would you want us to be stuck?" What they haven't yet realised is that being stuck leads to getting unstuck, which is precisely when learning takes place.

Children need to be in an environment where it is OK for them not to know what to do next so they have to use their problem-solving skills to find the answer. Make it clear from Day 1 that it is normal to make mistakes and that this is when we learn the most.

Children will not grow as learners if they are afraid of geting something wrong - they will never want to take risks and will always choose the easier option. The first step in developing children's problem-solving skills, therefore, is to stress the importance of mistakes. Watching teachers learn from their own mistakes, or celebrate when pupils learn from theirs, can be a massive eye-opener for children. This in turn will develop their tenacity and ability to bounce back - vital skills in problem-solving. 

Open-ended questions

Teachers use questions constantly throughout the day, many of which have nothing to do with learning ("Have you got a pen?", "Why are you out of your seat?" and so on). They also rely heavily on closed questions. While these have a place in the classroom, it is the open-ended questions that will help to develop problem-solving skills.

For example, rather than asking "Is 13 a prime number?", try phrasing the question differently. Asking "Why is 13 a prime number?" requires the child to think more deeply and changes the learning experience completely. Asking "why" forces children to think about how they have found their solution and consequently enables them to become better learners and critical thinkers.

You can include these types of questions in all your lessons until it becomes second nature. But be careful: it is also important to not rush a pupil when you've asked them a question like this. Make the children aware that you are not expecting an immediate answer because they need their "thinking time". This will also help prevent the very eager child from shouting out the answer because they are frustrated that it has not been answered yet.

These kinds of open-ended questions promote a questioning culture in your classroom. Children will think more carefully about their answers and this will help to secure their understanding. It is also beneficial to allow the children to ask questions of each other and discuss the possible solutions.

Take a step back

It is normal for teachers to want to jump in and help a child that is stuck; it is what we are trained to do. However, stepping in too soon can stifle their thinking or send a message that you are not confident that they can think for themselves.

Instead, take a step back. A child may solve something in a completely different way from an adult and they need the opportunity to work this out independently. In computing sessions, I often make a point to the children that I am not coming to help them, not because I don't care or want to support them, but because I want them to explore and develop their coding strategies without me telling them how to do it. If a child is struggling, you can always pair them up to share ideas in the initial stages. 

Modelling/sharing strategies 

If we want children to become excellent problem-solvers, they need to see what excellent problem-solving looks like. When facing a problem, share your thought process with the children as you solve it. You could either pose a problem at the start of the lesson and model a possible strategy at the end (to allow the children to think for themselves), or pose a problem and model the solution right away, to help those who are struggling to find a starting point.

It is also important to give the children the chance to share their strategies. I am continually surprised at the many different ways children have of working out the same problem. No two children think exactly the same and this is where we can show them how important it is to be unique and think differently.

Children are creative and imaginative, and should be given the opportunity to share the way they think with those around them. They shouldn't grow up feeling pressurised or daunted by their peers but embrace the fact that they solve problems in different ways and at different speeds. This will help to instil the message that they matter and what they think matters, and will help to boost their self-esteem. 

Problem-solving is an integral life skill. It helps to build character, resilience and perseverance. Problems - or challenges - provide us with opportunities to see things in a different way and promote lateral thinking. If a child lacks problem-solving skills, they may avoid trying new things or act hastily when presented with a problem. This will leave them ill-equipped for the ever-changing world ahead of them.

The careers we are preparing pupils for now may not even exist yet. However, with the right skills students can tackle and overcome any problem that they come across. Using the strategies explained above will help not only to develop a culture where it is OK to take risks, make mistakes and test new ideas, but will also bring problem-solving into your classroom on a daily basis - even when you are teaching content for the Sats tests.

If we develop these skills right from the start and continue throughout primary school, pupils will feel confident and passionate for learning and have a willingness to engage.

Ian Wood (pseudonym) is an assistant head at a school in South-West London.