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Teaching both problem-solving and standard content is not impossible

Written by: Lindy Elkins-Tanton
Published on: 23 Mar 2021

Two ladies pointing at a giant Sudoku in the street as a metaphor for problem solving.

Source: Getty (Edited)

A friend of mine, David, was quietly proud when his son went to a solid university to learn electrical engineering. He assumed subsequent employment was assured. Another friend, Priya, hoped a small liberal arts school would help her shy son gain confidence and learn broadly. And Sabrina looked forward to her daughter enjoying the advantage of her Ivy League school’s name and an influential social group.

Almost all our motivations for tertiary education boil down to one of two aspirations: a better job or a better life. And the messaging from college and university administrators, in my experience, echoes these themes. Yet the two most important indicators of college graduates’ success in finding both work and a sense of purpose, according to a 2019 Gallup-Bates survey, are applied work experience and having a person who supports and encourages pursuit of goals. Not, in other words, anything that happens in class.

But if the most important aspects of college experience occur at work, in friendship groups, in labs or at clubs, hadn’t we better improve our classes?

A few years ago, I undertook a gentle curriculum reform of the unit I was leading at a large public university. Changing curricula can be a touchy subject for faculty, and I wanted ours to both improve our student experience and further unite our already collegial professors. So instead of going straight for one of our early foundational courses and suggesting the professor responsible swap a chunk of their sacred content for some alternative, we undertook some backwards design.

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In a series of meetings for all members of our unit, including undergraduates and non-teaching staff, I asked: “What do you want our undergrads to have gained by the time they graduate?” The hundreds of answers fell into four broad groups. One was basic skills and tools, including writing, speaking and coding. Another was work experience and professional skills, such as teamworking. A third was character attributes, such as confidence, curiosity and diligence. And a fourth – by far the most popular – was problem-solving and research skills, including persistence, critical thinking and information retrieval and assessment.

Recently, I asked the question again, in a more general formulation: “Twitter friends, what do you think is the purpose of a college education?” A representative sample of the hundreds of answers from current faculty included: “to learn to think critically and to gain an appreciation for history, different cultures and the world around us”; “giving students the confidence that they can learn certain skills and ideas, and that they can contribute these to bigger pictures”; and “to teach you how to recognise when you don’t know the answer [and] to affirm that often it is the question that is more important than the answer”.

Again, almost no one said the most important things were from the canon of content.

Some of the Twitter participants noted the paradox: “I see all of these people mentioning ‘critical thinking’ and ‘teaching students how to learn’ but, from experience, that is exactly what we're not doing,” said one.

Students often come into a degree with an ungrounded enthusiasm for the idea of the field and a trust in the faculty to understand and be able to support and supplement their life and job goals. Yet that trust is often misplaced. Faculty typically know little about the job market outside our specific disciplinary field in academia. And while we may assert that we are teaching critical thinking and problem-solving alongside the fundamentals of our field, we do not even know how to assess whether we are doing that. Nor do we have much incentive to worry about it: we are rarely rewarded for attempts to improve our timeworn teaching practice.

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That is why the more rapid and effective way to make all majors immediately, obviously relevant is not to reform the classroom but to establish new continuity programmes outside it. These should focus around long-term work – a year or longer – on problems that are motivational to the students. Imagine a couple of hours per week spent working out how to increase local voter participation, address the healthcare crisis, or prevent infectious agents from jumping between species.

This way, students can learn how to define and research a problem, how to support each other and reach consensus in their team, and how to communicate solutions and effect change. Such programmes can be compulsory and formally assessed elements of a major, or they can be entirely voluntary and open to everyone – perhaps leading to badges and certificates. In the summer, the students can take relevant internships, too, to gain job experience and perspective on their project.

They still get the traditional degree content in the regular classroom; deep disciplinary knowledge is one of the foundations of civilisation, after all. But now they better understand why they need it – so are better able to retain it.

With this one relatively simple change, problem-solving is transformed from an afterthought confined to specific senior-year options into the backbone of the student experience. Students receive agency rather than having it taken away, learning to lead right from the start. And they will benefit for the rest of their lives – both working and personal.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton is a vice-president and a university professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. She is co-chair of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative and co-founder of Beagle Learning.