Teaching Problem Solving

What is Problem Solving?

Problem solving is the process in which students engage with a challenge, overcome difficulties or obstacles, or find new ways of doing things to propose solutions. In doing so, they synthesise knowledge, understanding and skills to find these solutions. The problems they solve may involve simply transferring knowledge and skills to a similar or familiar situation, or may require them to apply their understanding to an new context or an unfamiliar situation. Problem solving is embedded in the design process and the creative process, for example. Problem solving can occur in a wide range of domains from the subject specific, the interdisciplinary, the personal and the 'real world'.

Responding to the challenges of the twenty-first century – with its complex environmental, social and economic pressures – requires young people to be creative, innovative, enterprising and adaptable, with the motivation, confidence and skills to use critical and creative thinking purposefully. In developing these skills, students become more confident and autonomous problem-solvers and thinkers.

According to Brown University's Centre for Teaching and Learning and D.H Jonassen note that, problem solving is about removing the barrier, such as the unknown or an obstacle, to reaching a goal, but also noting that “finding or solving for the unknown must have some social, cultural, or intellectual value.” Students need to have their own motivating reasons for pursuing the unknown, such as curiosity, passion, self-interest.

Brown University's Centre for Teaching and Learning and D.H. Jonassen also note that there are problems that are straight forward problems with easily followed and predictable paths to a single answer, and their are unstructured problems, sometimes with a range of solutions, that could take different paths. Both will exercise skills and require knowledge and understanding.


By incorporating the Australian Curriculum: General Capabilities Critical and creative thinking in learning and teaching, students learn to generate and evaluate knowledge, clarify concepts and ideas, seek possibilities, consider alternatives and solve problems. Critical and creative thinking involves students thinking broadly and deeply using skills, behaviours and dispositions such as reason, logic, resourcefulness, imagination and innovation in all learning areas at school and in their lives beyond school.

Thinking that is productive, purposeful and intentional is at the centre of effective learning. By applying a sequence of thinking skills, students develop an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the processes they can use whenever they encounter problems, unfamiliar information and new ideas. In addition, the progressive development of knowledge about thinking and the practice of using thinking strategies can increase students’ motivation for, and management of, their own learning. They become more confident and autonomous problem-solvers and thinkers.

Critical thinking is at the core of most intellectual activity that involves students learning to recognise or develop an argument, use evidence in support of that argument, draw reasoned conclusions, and use information to solve problems. Examples of critical thinking skills are interpreting, analysing, evaluating, explaining, sequencing, reasoning, comparing, questioning, inferring, hypothesising, appraising, testing and generalising.

Creative thinking involves students learning to generate and apply new ideas in specific contexts, seeing existing situations in a new way, identifying alternative explanations, and seeing or making new links that generate a positive outcome. This includes combining parts to form something original, sifting and refining ideas to discover possibilities, constructing theories and objects, and acting on intuition.

Dispositions such as inquisitiveness, reasonableness, intellectual flexibility, open- and fair-mindedness, a readiness to try new ways of doing things and consider alternatives, promote and are enhanced by critical and creative thinking.

When applying critical and creative thinking to solve problems, students generate ideas, possibilities and actions. They create ideas and actions, and consider and expand on known actions and ideas. Students:

  • imagine possibilities and connect ideas

  • consider alternatives

  • seek solutions and put ideas into action.

Using critical and creative thinking, students analyse, synthesise and evaluate the reasoning and procedures used to find solutions, evaluate and justify results or inform courses of action. Students:

  • apply logic and reasoning

  • draw conclusions and design a course of action

  • evaluate procedures and outcomes.

Why teach it AT all?

For a long time schools and courses have promised to teach problem solving skills as life, work and academic skills, and as a self-evident good. Who wouldn't want students to be empowered to solve their own problems?

Indeed, young people need to develop problem solving skills to develop independence, to prepare for life outside the classroom and for their future occupations.

Giving students an opportunity to solve problems consolidates existing knowledge, highlights gaps in knowledge and skills while providing incentive to fill those gaps, and provides teachers with opportunities to see what students know and can do independently.

Yet evidence suggests too many students are not gaining those skills.

According to Foundation for Young Australians "In recent international testing by PISA, approximately 1 in 3 Australian 15 year-olds (35%) demonstrated low proficiency in problem solving. Students with a low socio-economic background and Indigenous students were more likely to be low performers, with 50% of low socioeconomic students and 62% of Indigenous students recording low proficiency. Looking forward to their working futures, Indigenous students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds also reported lower levels of openness to problem solving." (FFYA, 2017, pp.16-17) Even considering the weaknesses of PISA, these are confronting results.

Foundation for Young Australians- The New Basics- Big Data Reveals the Skills young people need for the New Work Order, 2017

For their Future Occupations

FFYA also noted that: "The OECD has argued that “the increased rate of innovation across economies requires the workforce to possess both technical competence and…‘generic skills’ – problem solving, creativity, team work and communication skills.” ( Toner, P., OECD, 2011, p.8)

Foundation for Young Australians- The New Basics- Big Data Reveals the Skills young people need for the New Work Order, 2017

InteractionS Between SKills

Of course, to be able to solve problems, students could well engage with most of these skills.

Foundation for Young Australians, The New Basics- Big Data Reveals the Skills young people need for the New Work Order, 2017

What sort of Digital Skills Do they Mean?

Digital skills indicate a source of data, a means of communication and collaboration, and a tool with which problem solving might occur.