Solving Complex Problems in Creative and Collaborative Ways

The Changing—and Unchanging—Landscape of Education

In recent years, schools have changed greatly. Formative and summative assessments have enabled the creation of longitudinal data sets and detailed methods for evaluating student learning. Accountability metrics have come and gone. Meanwhile, technology continues to get smaller, faster, and more prevalent in the classroom. But what is taught and the way it is taught have largely remained the same. 

Certainly, some of the reasons for that permanence are wise. All students should learn to read and write, do math, understand history, perform scientific experiments, and so on. Moreover, schools need to be accountable for reaching these learning goals. Assessments of some kind will continue to be necessary, whether by standardized tests or by other means.

But the world itself has changed. Automation, which has already transformed millions of jobs, will remake —or replace—millions more as the capabilities of artificial intelligence leap ahead. Some predict that automation could take over about half of all activities performed by all workers. Of course, even in an A.I.-powered future, human students will have to know and recall many facts. They will need to know how to take square roots and execute other procedures asked of them.

Rote Training Is Not Enough

That said, rote training will not prepare our children for the future that is already arriving, in which they will confront very complex problems. To face these thorny challenges successfully, what will our children need? Various lists of 21st century skills have been compiled. An important subset is called the Four C’s: Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication. With the coming of A.I., some have even called for what might be termed H.I.—uniquely Human Intelligence—to be valued.

Let’s cut the jargon. Our children need to be able to solve complex problems creatively, working in teams. How should education adapt to this need? Can our schools find room for new activities that truly enhance problem-solving skills, foster creativity, and enable effective teamwork? And can these activities reach as many students as possible, rather than just a fortunate few?

Complex Problems Are Tough (Of Course)

The complex problems for which we need to prepare students share one or more of the following characteristics:

Complex problems are tough problems in the real world. They’re “wicked issues.” For contrast, consider a stereotypically simple problem: “2 equations, 2 unknowns” from Algebra 1, particularly as the subject is typically taught. A simple problem of this kind has these characteristics:

Simple Problems Belong in School… And So Do Complex Problems

Simple problems have an important place in education. As a core part of their schooling, our children need to learn how to solve a great many of these kinds of problems in well-designed sequences. No matter what the future brings, students need fluency in large fact bases and catalogs of simple methods. And they need to be able to buckle down and do some boring things for “good enough” external reasons. After all, isn’t that part of life?

But don’t we need to teach our children how to solve complex problems, too? Aren’t they also part of life?

Consider the balance now struck in schools between simple problem-solving and complex problem-solving. Simple problems currently form the vast majority of work performed by students in certain subjects—in no small part, because individual performance on simple problems is easily measured. But shouldn’t at least a tiny portion of school time be devoted directly to complex problems, which differ from the simple kinds in so many qualitative ways—including in how interesting they can be?

How to Solve Complex Problems

To crack a complex problem, you need much more than a simple recipe. Here are key skill sets needed: 
  1. General analytic techniques that work across disciplines and in novel situations to develop fact bases and working hypotheses, such as a hands-on, flexible, and iterative form of the scientific method.
  2. Meta-skills such as resilience, grit, and growth mindset, matured through well-coached encounters with tough, interesting challenges, to enable students to struggle through “productive failure” and reach solid answers. 
  3. Creative faculties that help generate brand-new possibilities and on-the-fly workarounds.
  4. Teamwork skills that enable the team to function effectively and efficiently.

Yet we give little more than lip service to developing these complex-problem-solving skills and qualities in schools. A reason may be that historically, the ability to solve simple problems (which require these skills to a lesser degree) has been much easier to measure and include in accountability metrics.

Current programming in schools does pay some attention to developing skill sets #1 (general analytic techniques) and #2 (meta-skills like growth mindset), listed above. But if the students’ diet consists mostly of simple problems in careful increments, then instruction tends to focus on specialized recipes, failing to develop fully either general analytic techniques or resiliency meta-skills. And skill sets #3 and #4, creativity and teamwork, receive even less attention, though truly complex problems cannot be solved without them.

To develop creativity and teamwork, the first obstacle to overcome is the stubborn belief that they are inherent qualities (“you’re either born creative or you’re not”) or fundamental, immutable personality traits (“some people are good team-players, and others aren’t”). Many people no longer consider intelligence to be genetically fixed from birth but instead a mental faculty that can be improved. One day, creativity and teamwork will be regarded in the same way, as strengths that can be nurtured and grown with focus, dedication, and appropriate guidance.

Cultivating Creativity

Our future world will need a generation of creative leaders who can think outside the box, find innovative solutions, and adapt swiftly to evolving challenges, whether in aptly named “creative” industries pushing the boundaries of imagination, in technology startups revolutionizing the way we live, or in any other field or profession. As an example of the practical importance of a seemingly “pie-in-the-sky” quality like creativity, life-changing scientific breakthroughs have often occurred because curious scientists followed their noses, inquiring into mysteries and discovering creative solutions.

The bad news is that although we sorely need creativity, it doesn’t automatically correlate with traditional measures of intelligence that the educational system rewards so well. In other words, A-students aren’t necessarily the ones with the most developed creativity (which isn’t needed in most subjects to get A’s). Moreover, measures of creativity have been declining in recent decades, especially in early grades. This decline has been linked to the rise of standardized testing in those early grades. 

The good news is that creativity can be cultivated, even among students who have unfortunately come to believe that they’re not creative (and are thereby limiting themselves). It’s not incredibly difficult, either, to foster creativity within our schools as they are structured at present. Radical change is not required, but at least a little clear space must be carved out for creativity development through guided activities that permit free association and unconscious incubation of ideas. This space should exist in addition to valuable endeavors such as art and music, where support for creative expression may now be largely confined.

Teaching Teamwork

Likewise, teamwork skills require cultivation. We all know that for a group to work effectively, it can’t just be thrown together and labeled a team. Unfortunately, all too often within academic schooling, “group work” can mean assigning tasks to random combinations of students with little opportunity for real coaching. It’s often only through extracurricular activities that children really learn about teamwork, and even in those arenas, effective guidance can be hit or miss. 

As with creativity, true teamwork skills can be developed within academic settings, which can function as previews for professional workplaces where effective teams are highly valued. Among the many important sub skills are active listening, the asking of clarifying questions, effective brainstorming, and methods for running calm, honest discussions, coming to harmonious consensus, articulating agreed-upon points of view, and executing plans of action. As this incomplete list demonstrates, teamwork skills are neither personality traits nor feel-good behaviors that arise spontaneously in groups. They’re real skillsets that require true training.

Again, the bulk of current schooling, which concentrates on individual performance outside of teams, can remain unchanged. But space should be set aside in schools for explicitly teaching teamwork.

The Need for Psychological Safety to Take Intellectual Risks

No less an organization than Google has discovered, through extensive internal research, that solving complex problems creatively and collaboratively requires “psychological safety.” In other words, to crack the toughest problems, people must feel safe proposing ideas that might—and often will—fail. They must feel safe as they debate different positions, ask questions, change their minds, and finally come to agreement on a course of action. One researcher found that hospital-based teams “who reported better teamwork seemed to experience more errors”— but that was most likely because they were willing to report them. The teams that functioned worse were covering up their mistakes!

How do we create true psychological safety—this willingness to admit mistakes, offer out-of-the-box ideas, and think flexibly, creatively, and fearlessly—in schools? In an ideal world, classrooms everywhere would provide such safe oases throughout every school day. And of course, educators should strive to incorporate the principles of psychological safety into their standard practice. 

But we also know the reality. As long as students feel they are being judged on their individual performance in those classrooms—that everything they do “counts” on their personal record—they will have trouble letting down their guard. The ideal of psychological safety is often not achieved in our classrooms.

Getting Serious Work Done with Fun and Play

Metaphorically, what’s needed is right outside the doors of most elementary and middle schools. We need to create, figuratively and temporarily, academic playgrounds and constructive sandboxes: walled-off, protected places and times where children can have fun and be playful and curious as they take on mind-stretching challenges. Whether you call it “intellectual recess” or “escape-the-classroom,” this sort of enrichment should be considered not extraneous, but core. 

Fun and play are important educational superpowers. Fun and play are not antithetical to rigor; rather, they enable rigor. Students crack far tougher problems when those problems are fun puzzles and mysteries instead of dull drills. Students on playful adventures, entering imaginatively into stories, think more creatively and work together more effectively than students who feel trapped behind their desks as they are assigned to do rote work. (Isn’t this all true of adults as well?)

Fun activities such as puzzles and games are intrinsically motivating. They provide unifying challenges that demand creative, collaborative solutions, and they sustain the commitment of students who are struggling toward answers. Likewise, great stories are compelling. They create the “secret garden,” the separate, protected place where it is psychologically safe to take intellectual and social risks. 

Fun and play are not just “fun and games.” They are mission-critical for developing central skills of Human Intelligence: solving complex problems in creative and collaborative ways.

Making a Little Space in School for Developing H.I. Skills

In the pursuit of these Human Intelligence skills, schools do not have to change everything they do. The necessary enrichment is like a vitamin in the diet: you don’t need to ingest huge quantities of the health-giving substance. Rather, you take small, regular doses of the right material. 

Students can still spend most of their time and energy on traditional activities, within traditional subjects, with traditional measurements to meet common standards and community expectations. This is all well and good.

All schools need to do is carve out small, regular academic playgrounds and incorporate them consistently into the school calendar, ideally on a weekly basis. An hour committed every Friday, say, in order to develop complex problem-solving skills represents less than 5% of the typical school week. 

Think about the least effective twentieth of what currently happens during the school day. Imagine replacing that with fun, compelling programs and activities that cultivate complex problem-solving skills, creativity, and teamwork in an authentic, systematic way. Wouldn’t this exchange be worth it?

We’re not the only ones calling for time and resources to be devoted to developing these skills. For instance, the National Association for Gifted Children’s Gifted Programming Standards address this need in standards 3.1.7, 3.4.3, and 4.3.3, which can just as appropriately be applied to general K-12 education.

A Call for A Small Revolution

Over decades, our society has sounded alarms about how urgent it is to develop these kinds of complex problem-solving skills in our children. Schools have labored to respond, while shouldering countless other burdens and attempting to meet a growing range of societal needs. There’s no doubt that schools, and the educators within them, have been asked to move more and more mountains that surge higher every year.

The good news is that small, regular interventions, if publicly valued and thoughtfully implemented, can provide an effective investment in Human Intelligence skill development. In some cases, even after-school programs can provide the appropriate venue for this work, as long as the school or district commits to elevating its prominence. Ideally, these activities wouldn’t be relegated to purely extra-curricular time slots for a select few but rather made open to all students as co-curricular opportunities.

Our children need to learn how to solve complex problems, creatively and collaboratively. Our schools need to provide this learning. Fortunately, the revolution that is called for is small. Without overturning everything we do in schools, we can make focused and worthwhile commitments to effectively training the next generation of resilient, creative, team-based problem-solvers.

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