Problem Solving in Early Childhood Classrooms

Problem Solving in Early Childhood Classrooms

Joan Britz

Problem solving is the foundation of a young child’s learning. It must be valued, promoted, provided for, and sustained in the early childhood classroom. Opportunities for problem solving occur in the everyday context of a child’s life. By observing the child closely, teachers can use the child’s social, cognitive, movement, and emotional experiences to facilitate problem solving and promote strategies useful in the lifelong process of learning.LEARNING THROUGH PROBLEM SOLVINGBy exploring social relationships, manipulating objects, and interacting with people, children are able to formulate ideas, try these ideas out, and accept or reject what they learn. Constructing knowledge by making mistakes is part of the natural process of problem solving. Through exploring, then experimenting, trying out a hypothesis, and finally, solving problems, children make learning personal and meaningful. Piaget states that children understand only what they discover or invent themselves (1963). It is this discovery within the problem solving process that is the vehicle for children’s learning. Children are encouraged to construct their own knowledge when the teacher plans for problem solving; bases the framework for learning in problem solving; and provides time, space, and materials.THE TEACHER’S ROLEChanging through problem solving is modeled by adults (Bloom, Sheerer, and Britz, 1991) and facilitated by the teacher in the classroom environment. When teachers articulate the problems they face and discuss solutions with children, children become more aware of the significance of the problem-solving process. Being a problem solver is modeled by the teacher and emulated by the children. The teacher’s role is two-fold: first, to value the process and be willing to trust the learner, and second, to establish and maintain a classroom environment that encourages problem solving. It is the attitude of the teacher that must change first in the problem-solving classroom. Values and goals must be clearly defined to include a child-centered curriculum, the development of communication skills, promotion of cooperative learning, and inclusion of diverse ideas.

The teacher must be willing to become a learner, too. By being curious, observing, listening, and questioning, the teacher shares and models the qualities that are valued and promoted by the problem-solving process.PLANNING FOR PROBLEM SOLVINGA curriculum that accommodates a variety of developmental levels as well as individual differences in young children sets the stage for problem solving (Bredekamp, 1987). Choices, decision making, and a curriculum framework that integrates learning, such as Katz and Chard’s project method (1989), are especially appropriate for young learners. The project approach facilitates cooperative learning and promotes diverse ideas. Donna Ogle’s K-W-L (what you KNOW, what you WANT to know, and what you have LEARNED) is another method of organizing work that promotes problem solving. Themes, units, webbing, and the KWL method are all ways of organizing curriculum that can support problem solving (Britz and Richard, 1992). Beginning with the needs and interests of the children, problem solving develops from meaningful experiences important to the children. The teacher-designed curriculum provides the classroom basis for these experiences.

For example, a second grade investigation of waste materials from a classroom led one group of young children to explore the topic in an integrated way. Reading, writing, counting, measuring, interviews of community people, and science experiments were planned, initiated, and reported. Solutions to many problems posed during the investigation were tried out and some were found to be successful. Through group work, individuals were able to participate and communicate as cognitive and social needs were met. Each child, at individual levels and in individual ways, was successful within the group experience. Problem solving empowers children.PROVIDING FOR PROBLEM SOLVINGProblem solving is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced. It is facilitated by a classroom schedule that provides for integrated learning in large blocks of time, space for ongoing group projects, and many open-ended materials. The teacher provides the time, space, and materials necessary for in-depth learning.

1. Time: Teachers can provide for problem solving by enlarging blocks of learning time during the school day. Because making choices, discussing decisions, and evaluating mistakes takes time, large time blocks best suit the problem-solving process. It is important that children know they have time to identify and solve problems.

2. Space: Projects and group meetings may require an assessment of classroom space. Moving desks and tables together facilitates communication and cooperation in the classroom. Once the teacher has observed the patterns of traffic in the classroom, equipment can be moved or eliminated to promote problem solving.

3. Materials: The open-ended materials that are needed for the construction and concrete solving of problems should be safe, durable, and varied. Well-marked storage units should be easily accessible to children, and materials should be available for ongoing exploration and manipulation. Access to a variety of materials encourages children to use materials in new and diverse ways. This freedom promotes problem solving.THE PROBLEM-SOLVING MODELIndividuals or groups can solve problems. Group problem solving is important to young children because many diverse ideas are generated. Both individual and group processes should be included in the early childhood classroom. Becoming skillful at problem solving is based on the understanding and use of sequenced steps. These steps are:

1. Identifying the problem,

2. Brainstorming a variety of solutions,

3. Choosing one solution and trying it out, and

4. Evaluating what has happened.

Often the most difficult of these steps is identifying the problem. If Bill cries, “Alice is hitting me,” the problem to be solved is not the hitting but, rather, THE REASON WHY Alice is hitting Bill. Therefore, the investigation of solutions must relate to the cause of the problem instead of its effect. Brainstorming gives children practice in communication, negotiation, and cooperation skills. Learning to express individual ideas in a diverse society is important. By choosing and trying out a solution, learners develop empathy, come to consensus, and share the responsibility of the decision. These are valued learnings in a democratic society. Finally, by evaluating the problem-solving process, children assess their choices and mistakes and learn to be independent evaluators of their work.

The process of problem solving–making choices and learning from them–is facilitated by teachers who observe, listen, and ask open-ended questions that further the process: questions such as, “What will happen if…?” and “What other ways can you think of…?” Problem solving becomes a cycle of learning when mistakes are made and different solutions have to be tried. This discovery process allows children to construct their own learnings. Most problems have more than one solution; some problems cannot be solved. Experiences with these sorts of problems promote learning in young children.CHOOSING GOOD PROBLEMSGoffin (1985) provides teachers with guiding questions that will help them identify appropriate problems for young children. Some of these are:

1. Is the problem meaningful and interesting?

2. Can the problem be solved at a variety of levels?

3. Must a new decision be made?

4. Can the actions be evaluated?

Problem solving is a way to make sense of the environment and, in fact, control it. The process allows children in an increasingly diverse world to be active participants and to implement changes. By including problem solving in the early childhood classroom, we equip children with a life-long skill that is useful in all areas of learning.FOR MORE INFORMATIONBloom, P.J., Sheerer, M., and Britz, J. BLUEPRINT FOR ACTION: ACHIEVING CENTER-BASED CHANGE THROUGH STAFF DEVELOPMENT. Lake Forest, IL: New Horizons, 1991.

Bredekamp, S., ed. DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE PRACTICE. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1986. ED 283 587.

Britz, J., and Richard, N. PROBLEM SOLVING IN THE EARLY CHILDHOOD CLASSROOM. Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1992.

Goffin, S., and Tull, C. “Problem Solving. Encouraging Active Learning.” YOUNG CHILDREN 40 (1985): 28-32. EJ 314 275.

Katz, L., and Chard, S. ENGAGING CHILDREN’S MINDS: THE PROJECT APPROACH. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1989.


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