In my graduate and professional development classes I'd heard about elementary IB programs. I was fascinated by their method of having one open-ended question that is examined in every subject during the entire year. I decided to try it and chose a very open question, "What is a problem solver?"
This was simple to incorporate in first grade. We approached reading decoding and comprehension strategies as 'problem solving'. Word study and spelling was also problem solving, as was writing... 'does it make sense? how you can solve that problem?' Science was also easy to incorporate, every unit of study started by discussing what we noticed in nature. Then we talked about how we could learn more about what we noticed. In social studies we looked at people as 'famous problem solvers'. We had a problem solver wall and every person (other than Helen Keller, more on that later) we studied we made a poster for and added it up there so we could refer to it throughout the year.
I found this hugely successful. It gave us a common language and asked the kids to create skills they could apply to every aspect of their lives. Can't do something, don't know... can you be a problem solver and figure it out? Studying famous Americans gave us definitions of what a problem solver is, reading and math gave us a chance to practice it, and science gave us a chance to develop higher-level questions where we could work through strategies for finding answers. I loved the inquisitive nature this created and how it developed thinkers, wonderers, and triers. It gave kids permission for things to not be perfect, because you could always be a problem solver to fix it. It was ok to take risks. It also gave them control of the classroom, asking them to look at problems, take responsibility for them and fix them.
Where it was most effective was giving us a common language with social skills. Can't find a chair? Can you be a problem solver? Someone stepped on your toe? Can you be a problem solver and figure out what to say? Spilled crayons on the floor? That's fine, just be a problem solver and clean it up.
For my young scholars and kiddos ready for higher-level thinking I saw so much growth in their thinking patterns. They were excited to approach new topics and frequently asked questions showing that they were looking at things from every aspect. Some even wanted to tell us about how their family members were problem solvers.
The common language this created was also great for my special education students. I was worried that asking them to 'be a problem solver' left things too open ended and unsettling. Yet, it seemed because we used this language all the time it actually gave them a sense of flexibility to help them get through the day. My little autistic friend frequently asked us "Be problem solver!" when someone can't find a spot on the rug or a chair in the classroom.
If I was going to do it again there are things I would change. We needed more discussions in the beginning of the year on good problem solving and bad problem solving. One little kiddo took problem solving into her own hands and started pinching people to get them to do what she wanted. Not ok, not solving the problem...
On Friday a head start teacher told me that one of my children was visiting her. After watching her try to put stuffed animals in a box my little one told her, "Just be a problem solver. Maybe try another box". If nothing else, hopefully studying problem solvers has given them a life skill that will help them take responsibility, be creative, and show initiative later in life.
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