Solving Problems or Problem Solving?

School is not where students learn their lives’ worth of knowledge, rather, it is where they learn to learn.

There is a great truth in the above statement. Primary and secondary schooling may give students large stores of data, but they primarily teach students how to find, collect, create, or remember ideas, skills, and facts. The mission is to learn to do, not just to learn a new tidbit. The goals of many classes, however, remain central on the outcome, leaving students and teachers alike to resort to memorization and repetition rather than understanding. Thus, students’ difficulties are often discovered too late and deceptively good grades surprisingly plummet when it comes time to apply what is learned. Some teachers do recognize the need to help students learn and develop good, deep understanding, but a terrifying number still teach for the test, giving more information on the test itself than the material the test is supposed to (would you ever guess?) TEST. The result, of course, is that the students do better than is representative of their knowledge (at least to start), but deeper than that, it teaches them to expect solutions to be handed to them before the problem is even presented, killing all creativity and reasoning. An environment I’ve experienced on a few separate occasions that seems a wonderful solution to this is a classroom and course that revolve around problem solving.

In my AP Chemistry class last year, we solved problems about donuts just as often as we solved chemical problems. The class scored a whole two points higher on average than the national average on the AP test at the end of the year. Problem solving does work! If applied correctly, any area of life can connect to and aid in other areas. Any problem that exists has both concrete and abstract parts. Often, the problem is concrete, the solution is theoretical (used as the future, plural tense of concrete in this instance), and the process to find the solution may require a bit of abstract thought or modeling. Therefore, in teaching problem solving, a need must be present and specific, but in fulfilling that need, multiple routes should be provided, with encouragement for the students to produce more. In both my chem class and a previous experience with a district-sponsored program for select students, the classes revolved around one central theme, whether that be molecular bonding, space travel, conservation, archaeology, or one of many other topics. The problems faced dealt with a very concrete and measurable aspect of the themes, from energy, to financing, to dating, to whatever else. However, while these were taught within the frame of reference of the overarching topic they were also applied to many other areas of life. Learning to finance a flight to Mars became learning to juggle home expenses; finding the bonding tendencies of elements and molecules became a lesson on interpersonal relationships; recording a podcast on an archaeological dig taught research and presentational skills.

To this day, I will not say I’m strong in any one subject, though I consider myself highly intelligent. The reason for this is everything stated above. I learn in metaphors, applications, and comparisons, as I see nearly all others doing, whether consciously or not. I cannot solve a calculus problem without calling upon physics and chemistry; I draw from art and physics to learn chemistry, and everything I’ve learned regarding physics has been connected back to my bike. I will not say that my hierarchy is the one that works for everyone because I know everyone is different, but I do know from experience – both learning and teaching – that everyone has a passion, and, when used as a base, any passion can help solve all problems. It is time for schools, teachers, students, employers, and employees to accept this and free the individual rather than coercing them to the same society that everyone fights. Join me in learning to learn and fighting mindless memorization!



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