The purpose of this post is to discuss problem solving, the “Oh” moment, and to request help from readers to identify additional examples of K-12 problem solving activities/projects that engage students.
The Back Story
“What prompted this focus on problem solving?”, you ask. This past Christmas, my wife received an iPad as a gift. One of the first free apps that we installed was “Draw Something“. This problem-solving activity asks participants to draw representations of one of three different words. In our case, the drawing was then shared online with a particular family member. The recipient watches a short video of the drawing being created, together with clues as to the number of letters in the word as well as a variety of letters that may, or may not, be part of the word.
For example, our older son sent us the following picture which represented a seven character word which might be considered as a “university activity”.
Now both my wife and I attended university but struggled to figure out what the person was holding. We utilized a popular problem solving strategy in which we dialogued and thought “out loud”. Our conversation went something like this …
Wife: Do you think it’s a coil ring binder?
Me: No there is not a “B” as one of the 7 letters.
Wife: Maybe it’s a sheet of music held by a choir member?
Me: Well if I had drawn the picture of a person singing, I’d have included musical notes.
Me: I know. It’s a beer tankard.
Wife: Well there are two “E”s, but no “B”.
Me: I note that there are two “E”s and two “O”s. Perhaps they are double letters as in “beer” or “food”. What do you think?
Wife: With only seven letters in the word, both double “E”s and “O”s cannot be included together.
Me: Well … we’ve successfully solved the previous 19 games so I hate to give up.
Wife: Why don’t we press the “crossed-arrows” button (on the right) to rearrange the 12 letters in a different format? Perhaps we will see a new letter pattern.
We repeatedly clicked on the “crossed arrows” and no matter how those twelve letters were re-arranged, we did not get any inspiration or clues as to the nature of the drawing.
The critical “Oh” or “Aha moment” occurred for me when I turned off the iPad (by holding down Wake/Sleep button) and restarted it. When I selected the “Draw Something” game, the same “university activity” challenge picture was still displayed and the following 12 letters were offered up as clues.
However, the important clue was that they were not just the original 12 characters, in a new, scrambled layout format as generated by the “crossed arrows” button. Rather, this new set of 12 characters were different from the ones presented in the original drawing shown above.
This revelation was a problem solving break-through! I wrote down the above 12 characters and repeated the process. Each time the game was re-booted, I wrote down the new 12 character display and repeated this five more times.
My wife and I wrote down the six sets of 12 character clusters as shown below:
Our next step was to identify which characters were common to all six sets. To illustrate this process, I have coloured in red the seven common letters that appear in all of these 12 character clusters. We finally were making headway as we identified the following seven letters that needed to be unscrambled to solve the picture:
U L O O S P C
My wife and I looked back at our son’s drawing and started to rearrange these seven characters. I finally thought that perhaps the last three letters might be “C U P” and suggested that perhaps there was a Norwegian trophy known as the “O S L O C U P. Unfortunately, when we dragged the seven letters into the available spaces, the application prompted us with “guess again!” My wife took over and after several minutes, she dragged and arranged the letters to spell the word “S O L O C U P”. The “Draw Something” app congratulated us and my wife and I looked at each other with a dumfounded amazement. While we share a total of 11 years of university, we were never exposed to this activity. In fact, I had to search Google to find out what the term “SOLOCUP” meant.
However, the challenge of this “Draw Something” activity got me thinking about the different ways that people, and in particular students, solve problems and how we, as teachers, might foster thinking “outside the box”.
How does this relate to the classroom?
As a former Mathematics and Computer Science teacher, I have always been passionate about puzzles and problem solving. In fact, I still maintain that my high school Computer Science students focused not so much on proper syntax of the Fortran programming language but more importantly on the task of problem solving. In the early 70’s, my students had only one “run” a day (as I took their punched card programs to the university each night), so they focused on attention to detail and the art of problem solving.
Is there a way that K-12 teachers today can introduce engaging, problem solving activities/projects into their teaching. I admit that we all require some rote, lower-level thinking and learning. However, if today’s Kindergarten students are going to be successful when they graduate from high school in 12 years, they must acquire critical, higher order thinking and problem solving skills. Certainly we cannot imagine what new technologies and jobs will be created and evolve over the next decade. However, I think that we can be quite confident that graduates that have practiced and honed their problem solving skills will be much more successful.
Here is where I ask my readers to help me. I will list below a series of problem solving activities that I think educators should adopt/adapt for their classrooms. To enhance each entry, I’ll provide a hyperlink to more adequately describe the problem solving endeavour. I encourage readers to add their favourite problem solving activity/project, together with a descriptive link, in the comment area so that this post can benefit others through our collaborative actions:
aTdHvAaNnKcSe for sharing, in the comment area, other favourite problem solving activities/projects with an appropriate hyperlink.
Take care & keep smiling