Testing an accepted belief knowing it can be disproved at any time is the foundation of science and scientific discovery. The process relies on people being curious; exploring deeply by asking challenging, even probing questions in order to find answers. These are the problem-solving skills and qualities students need to be ready for the jobs of the future, says Andy Puttock, Education Director at Nord Anglia Education.
"The idea that there is one solution to every problem may work in certain contexts, but it is certainly not the number one skill that our students will need in the 21st century," Puttock says. "We live in an increasingly complex world."
While the workplace values colleagues who both raise problems and offer solutions, or a range of possible solutions to problems, Puttock says this approach may reinforce traditional or 20th century ways of learning, which he says students need to move away from.
"We have only just begun to explore the idea of giving students more open-ended problems, where the way to the solution is in their own hands leading to no single right answer," he says.
As a linguist who taught French in schools for many years, Puttock says his own education and experience required him to find correct or precise translations, only to later realize that translated word or phrase could on occasion change. "Language is often fluid, communicative, context-based, and developing," he says.
As a leading premium international schools group, NAE has been working with world-leaders like The Juilliard School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to enrich the range of globally-respected curricula delivered in its schools.
Through these collaborations, teaching best practice at NAE has been enhanced by designing activities and creating engaging environments that go beyond classroom learning. This enriched curriculum has enabled students to identify and solve problems differently and more effectively, readying them to compete and thrive in the jobs of the future.
Puttock says that the learning process might involve failing initially, but students eventually reach and achieve a better, stronger solution through teamwork and collaboration, getting creative and re-designing and proposing a range of viable solutions.
"Much less frequently now do we 'set' students problems," Puttock says. "Far more often we see students looking at a situation, identifying what the problems are and finding their own range of solutions. Fully embedded within this process is the belief that occasional failure is to be celebrated and that design-thinking and prototyping will provide a better solution in the end."
Finding "true solutions" to complex problems takes time and resilience, the latter being one of the most sought-after skills of employers today, Puttock says.
While there is also space for teaching single, correct answers to problems as students learn the value of accuracy, rigor, and structured thinking, Puttock says these skills need to be balanced by developing an appetite to take risks and experiment regularly in order to find answers. Teachers need to encourage students to pick up these qualities.
"We want our students to be risk-takers," Puttock says.
"I think it's worth posing the question: Do we really? Do teachers encourage this? Do we allow the time, provide the support and safety for students to experiment in this way?"
The end result is that if applied, students leave schools equipped with the abilities to identify real problems, explore and come up with the best solution, enabling them to thrive in the future well beyond school.
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