The Importance of Problem-Solving Skills

Santa Fe, approximately 60 miles North-Northea...
Image via Wikipedia

I saw a very odd thing today.

I am on vacation in Santa Fe, NM and my wife Jill and I were walking back to our hotel from an event on Saturday morning when we saw it.

Someone had abandoned a Range Rover automobile in the traffic lane at an intersection.

Cars were pulling up behind this one at red lights and, because they could not see through the heavily tinted rear window, honking when the light turned green as if there were an inattentive driver behind the wheel.

Jill and I steered a couple of cars around the very expensive abandoned one before I looked in through the car’s open window and saw the key in the ignition.

I called the police and waited for the officer to arrive.

When he got there he ran the license plate and looked around the inside of the car. There was a wallet in the little storage box next to the driver’s seat.

A second officer arrived.

As the two officers were discussing what to do next a young woman wearing a nice dress ran up to the car.

She told the officers that it was her boyfriend’s car but she had been driving it.

Range Rover Supercharged
Image via Wikipedia

According to her, the car stalled in the intersection and as it was near her boyfriend’s residence, she had gone to get him.

The police officers were very polite and clearly skeptical.

The woman repeated her story and looked down the street waiting for her boyfriend to arrive.

I wanted to hang around to see how it all played out but the skies were threatening (this is the aptly named rainy season in the high desert) and I’d already gotten drenched once on this trip.

As we walked back to our hotel I wondered how this woman had done in school.

The thought is not as strange as it may seem.

As the police had told the woman, she should have stayed with the car and asked someone who had a cell phone (on the odd chance she didn’t have one) to call her boyfriend.

Doing as the police suggested required what I consider the bare minimum of problem-solving skills.

Apparently this young woman did not even possess that level of ability.

For that matter, neither did the somewhat older driver who sat behind the abandoned car for two light cycles before finally driving around it.

I am so glad that schools are increasingly using project-based learning that helps students develop problem-solving skills.

That is more and more how I teach.

None of my students will ever abandon their cars, even cheap ones, in traffic lanes.

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8 Responses to The Importance of Problem-Solving Skills

  1. Joan Young says:

    Great real-world example Deven! We see this lack of what we used to call, “common sense” every day. You are so right that with teaching critical thinking and problem solving skills, along with giving kids opportunities to stretch themselves through challenging projects,perhaps we will see fewer “mental” breakdowns. Thanks for the post!

  2. allanahphoto says:

    Reminds me of the YouTube advertisement

  3. elona says:


    To me common sense is partly expertise and partly the ability to apply knowledge gained from one situation to another situation that is not identical. It’s knowledge plus application in an appropriate way.

    When I was learning my way around a computer, my son would tell tell me “Mom it’s only common sense that you do ….” But, I wondered how could I have common sense about computers when I had little experience with them? My son had more experience with computers so was more familiar with them and developed a vast data bank of common sense about computers that I didn’t have. (I reminded him about his lack of common sense for running into the street when he as two years old just like I asked him how many times did I have to show you how to tie your shoe laces. I think from time to time children need a little reminder to be more empathetic with their parents.)

    Common sense is also the application of what we have learned in one situation applied appropriately to another situation. I find that some of my students have great difficulty applying what they have learned in one situation to another situation that isn’t exactly identical. They do not see the connection.

    I try to teach this application skill, but alas some students seem unable to do this. They seem to lack the critical thinking skills to determine what knowledge they have that is appropriate to apply in another situation.

    If we define common sense as the ability to apply sound judgment in a given instance, them there will always be some people who have common sense and some people who don’t. It’s just that the internet lets instances of the application of unsound judgment go viral and has us wondering if the application of sound judgment is declining.

    Thank you so much for sharing the YouTube video. I’m definitely going to use it with my grade 12 Learning Strategies class next semester.

  4. […] Teach your students problem-solving skills and this will never happen to them. (Education on the Plate) […]

  5. Deena Warwick says:

    This is something my close colleagues and I have discussed at length in our school. Sadly, bubble testing these kids to death have led to a lack of common sense. Unless they have answers or choices to a question, they can not come up with a solution to a problem. At the end of this past school year, I gave my students some practice sheets to work on as morning work, trying to get their minds moving. Even my brightest students kept coming up to me asking me what to do since there were no choices for solving the problems. Yet another reason, standardized testing if harming our students more than helping.

    • Deven Black says:

      The process of coming up with potential solutions to novel problems has three requirements: the ability to recognize patterns, creativity, and the willingness to take the risk of the possible solution failing.

      Recognizing patterns in this case means realizing that there are common elements between the current problem and a problem or problems one has seen or solved before. Separating knowledge into artificially discrete subjects is one of the forces destroying this ability in students who fail to recognize commonalities of situations because one is labeled math and another called science or social studies and we tell students there is a difference between those “subjects” even when they draw on common skills.

      Creativity is the ability to create a novel response and schools repeatedly punish students who think differently by either limiting the possible answers from which to choose or by ignoring or, worse, actively discouraging responses that break the mold of common thinking.

      Risk taking requires the freedom to err and to have the time to learn from those errors. Few schools give adequate time for students to go through that process while, at the same time, punishing students who take risks, reach and fail by giving them lower grades while rewarding those who play it safe.

      I am not at all surprised your students could not do the work in which they had to provide the answers. Don’t feel, though, that you now must teach students how to be creative when the problem is that those students have been exposed to far too much ‘teaching’ of the real lessons of American schooling: compliance, submission and conformity.

      • I just did a talk on the importance of risk taking for children with visual impairments in Little Rock this summer. Its a very critical piece of development that I think is getting pushed out of the school system, not only with kids with disabilities, but typical kids as well.

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