how to teach problem solving

Developing strong problem solving skills is one of the most valuable things we can teach students. In today’s complex world, the ability to confront new challenges in creative and effective ways is more important than ever. The good news is that problem solving is a skill that can be learned, strengthened and mastered with the right guidance. This article will provide teachers and parents with strategies and techniques for helping students become confident, capable problem solvers. Let’s dive in!

Key Takeaways

  • Problem solving involves identifying an issue, generating potential solutions, evaluating options, implementing a plan, and reviewing the outcome.
  • Create a safe environment where mistakes are viewed as opportunities to improve. Praise effort and perseverance, not just success.
  • Use open-ended questions and discussions to engage students’ natural curiosity and get them thinking critically.
  • Incorporate problem solving across all academic subjects, not just STEM fields. Pull real-world examples from current events, literature, and student interests.
  • Have students work through problems both individually and in groups. Collaboration builds teamwork skills.
  • Let students struggle productively through challenges instead of rushing to provide answers. Developing grit is key.
  • Teach students structured frameworks like define-ideate-prototype-test but leave room for creative thinking. Avoid overly-prescriptive approaches.
  • Use modeling to demonstrate step-by-step problem solving strategies. Think aloud so students can learn your thought process.
  • Reflect on results together and help students extract key lessons that will transfer to future situations. Celebrate both successes and failures!

Why Teach Problem Solving Skills?

In the past, education focused on having students memorize information and formulas to regurgitate on tests. But in today’s ever-changing world, it’s impossible to anticipate every challenge students will face or equation they must solve in their futures. That’s why learning how to learn through adaptable problem solving skills has become so critical.

Teaching effective problem solving empowers students to:

  • Tackle new challenges in creative ways instead of giving up when the answer isn’t obvious.
  • Develop critical thinking skills to evaluate situations from multiple perspectives.
  • Build confidence in their ability to handle uncertainty and turn obstacles into opportunities.
  • Learn from mistakes instead of fearing them, understanding that failure is part of the creative process.
  • Improve their complex communication and collaboration abilities.
  • Become passionate, self-directed learners equipped with strategies to keep growing.

Problem solving skills aren’t just reserved for STEM education. Developing students’ abilities to overcome challenges creatively will help them across all academic disciplines and lead to greater success in school and life.

Characteristics of Good Problem Solvers

When teaching problem solving skills, it helps to identify qualities and behaviors we want to nurture in students. Some key characteristics of effective problem solvers include:

  • Curiosity: Eagerly investigates topics and asks questions to deepen understanding. Doggedly gathers all relevant information.
  • Creativity: Generates many diverse solutions instead of going with the first idea. Thinks outside the box using imagination.
  • Flexibility: Adapts approaches as needed instead of rigidly sticking to one strategy. Comfortable with ambiguity.
  • Persistence: Tries multiple solutions when stuck instead of giving up easily. Displays grit and determination.
  • Metacognition: Reflects on own thinking and analyzes personal strategies for improvement.
  • Open-Mindedness: Considers perspectives of others and is willing to be proven wrong. Does not dismiss ideas prematurely.
  • Optimism: Believes obstacles can be overcome and focuses on making progress. Does not become discouraging or defeatist.

When students demonstrate these qualities, it is worth calling out explicitly to reinforce behaviors leading to success. Reference the characteristics above to motivate students to keep improving.

Teaching Problem Solving Step-By-Step

Problem solving involves multiple steps performed iteratively. Students should ultimately internalize the full process, but when starting out it helps to guide them through each stage purposefully.

Here are six key phases of effective problem solving to teach students:

1. Identify the Problem

Before solving a problem, students must clearly determine what the actual problem is. Instead of rushing in based on assumptions, teach students to:

  • Gather information by asking clarifying questions and investigating the context.
  • State the issue succinctly in their own words. For example, “We need to build a bridge across the stream using natural materials.”
  • Understand expectations. Is speed important or durability? Constraints like materials and budget should be clear.

Having students paraphrase the problem statement is crucial. Jumping to solutions without this step is a common mistake. Time spent truly understanding the problem pays off.

2. Explore Potential Strategies

Next, students brainstorm as many possible solutions as they can. The goal is to unleash creativity. Encourage wild ideas without judgment at this stage.

Possible brainstorming frameworks include:

  • List every solution that comes to mind, no matter how impractical. Challenge students to get 50+ ideas.
  • Think through solutions used for similar problems. How can these be adapted or combined?
  • Imagine unrealistic perfect solutions. What would need to happen to make it possible? This stretches creativity.
  • Get inspiration from nature. How do animals or plants solve similar needs?
  • Talk through options out loud and build on each other’s ideas.

The key is generating a large quantity of ideas before evaluating quality. Keep pushing for new possibilities.

3. Analyze and Select Solutions

With a list of potential solutions identified, students now critically evaluate which option(s) are most promising. Teach them to ask:

  • Which solutions fit within the identified constraints like time, resources, and budget?
  • What are the pros and cons of each option? How can cons be mitigated?
  • What solutions align closest to the end goal stated in the problem definition?
  • Which have the highest chance of success based on available information?
  • What trade-offs between time, cost, and quality do different solutions require?

By practicing this deliberative decision process instead of impulsively jumping at the first idea, students learn to think critically. Have them justify selections with sound reasoning.

4. Implement the Chosen Solution(s)

Next students move forward to test their chosen solution(s) in action. Have them:

  • Develop an orderly plan breaking key action steps down into small manageable parts. Visuals like flowcharts can help.
  • Anticipate obstacles that may arise during implementation. Prepare contingency plans.
  • Identify resources and deadlines needed to complete each phase of the plan.
  • Carry out the plan, modifying along the way as needed. Collect data on results.

Ideally, have students start implementing multiple promising solutions simultaneously. This contrasts strategies against each other under real conditions.

5. Evaluate Results and Iterate

After completing initial implementations, students evaluate results and determine next steps. Guide them to:

  • Compare actual outcomes to expected outcomes. Analyze root causes of both successes and failures.
  • Determine if the solution fully achieved the original goal stated in the problem definition. If not, the problem is not yet solved.
  • Identify any new issues or information uncovered during implementation. This may require redefining the initial problem.
  • Brainstorm improvements to solutions and repeat implementation cycles until satisfied. Persistence is key.

Make sure students do not consider problems truly solved after one solution attempt. Real-world problem solving often requires sustained effort over multiple iterations.

6. Share Findings and Lessons Learned

After successfully solving the problem, students should clearly document their results and articulate lessons learned. Have them:

  • Outline the final solution and how it achieves the stated goal. Compare against alternative approaches considered.
  • Note any surprising insights or revelations uncovered during the process.
  • Identify key strategies and mindsets that led to success like collaboration or flexibility.
  • Summarize specific tactics and tools that proved helpful for future reference.
  • Highlight mistakes made and lessons learned from failures. What would they do differently next time?

By coaching students to reflect on takeaways at the end of each problem, you reinforce critical habits to apply going forward. Have them add these to a running journal or portfolio.

Scaffold Challenges from Simple to Complex

Students will become frustrated tackling problems that are too advanced too soon. Build confidence by providing scaffolding: start with simple challenges and incrementally increase difficulty as problem-solving skills improve.

A few examples of elementary scaffolding:

  • Give younger students physical materials like blocks or craft supplies to manipulate as they create concrete solutions. Don’t rely solely on theoretical thinking.
  • Start with fictional problems based on relatable situations like packing a suitcase before moving to more abstract scenarios.
  • Guide students through a few examples modeling the step-by-step problem solving process before expecting them to do it independently.
  • Deconstruct multi-faceted issues into discrete, limited scope challenges to solve pieces sequentially. Then combine the parts.
  • Provide prompts and targeted questions to steer students if they get stuck. Gradually taper support and let them develop independence.

The right balance of structure and flexibility keeps students productively challenged in their zone of proximal development without overwhelming them. Keep raising the bar just beyond their current competence level.

Problem Solving Strategies to Teach

In addition to the core problem solving process, equip students with specific techniques they can employ to overcome roadblocks during the ideation, analysis, and implementation phases:

Ideation Strategies

  • Brainstorming – Generate expansive lists of all possible solutions without filtering initially. Build on others’ ideas.
  • Mind Mapping – Visually map out connections between the problem, underlying causes, and potential solutions.
  • SCAMPER – Use cues like Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, and Reverse to spark creative ideas.
  • SIX Thinking Hats – Look at the problem through filters like optimism, pessimism, facts, emotions, critique, and holistic perspective.
  • Random Stimulation – Introduce unrelated objects, concepts, or locations to ignite new neural connections.

Analysis Strategies

  • SWOT Analysis – Examine internal Strengths and Weaknesses along with external Opportunities and Threats of each potential solution.
  • Plus-Minus-Interesting – Note pluses, minuses, and interesting implications of each option to expand perspectives.
  • Pro-Con List – Catalog concrete pros and cons for the leading solutions under consideration.
  • Prioritization Matrix – Plot options on a 2×2 grid weighing factors like easy-hard and low-high impact.
  • Decision Matrix – Systematically score solutions against weighted criteria to objectively compare.

Implementation Strategies

  • SMART Goals – Ensure solutions have Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound goals.
  • 80/20 Rule – Focus efforts on the 20% of tasks that will drive 80% of impact for greatest efficiency.
  • Minimal Viable Product – Test solutions quickly at small scale first before committing fully. Gather feedback to refine.
  • Fail Fast – Take risks with the expectation that failures will occur. The key is learning quickly to improve.
  • Occam’s Razor – When stuck, revert to the simplest possible solution first before complicating.

This is just a small sample of powerful problem solving strategies worth equipping students with. Teach a few at a time and reinforce consistent usage in different contexts.

Integrate Problem Solving Across the Curriculum

While problem solving may seem best suited to STEM classrooms, there are abundant opportunities to develop critical thinking skills across all academic disciplines. Here are some examples:

Math Class

  • Pose story problems that require synthesizing multiple concepts to derive solutions.
  • When introducing formulas, have students first infer relationships from data patterns instead of providing equations upfront.
  • Allow open-ended challenges with multiple solution paths using logic and creativity.

Language Arts

  • Analyze fictional characters’ motivations and scenarios to discuss better alternatives where relevant.
  • Debate hypothetical proposals for legislation, business launches, non-profit organizations etc. What are the merits, weaknesses, and alternatives?
  • Defend different interpretations of poetic or literary works using evidence.


  • Role play historical events and have students propose alternative decisions by key figures that may have changed the outcome.
  • Research primary sources to piece together causes of pivotal events from incomplete fragments.
  • Compare decisions and strategies between different groups or leaders during wartime, political movements, or periods of innovation.


  • Propose hypothetical scenarios where the rules of nature work differently and discuss possible new phenomena.
  • Investigate real unsolved mysteries in science using the scientific method. Evaluate existing evidence and competing theories.
  • Design and conduct controlled experiments to isolate root causes of observed effects. Identify and troubleshoot confounding variables.

Art & Design

  • Reimagine how everyday objects like bags, clothing, furniture or dishes could be redesigned to improve their function and appeal.
  • Use found everyday materials to design creative solutions to whimsical problems like helping a fairy cross a muddy pond.
  • Work within artistic constraints like limited materials, size restrictions, or use of specific shapes to fuel creativity.

With deliberate effort, virtually any subject area can become an engaging arena for students to flex their creative problem-solving muscles. Seek out or design curricula centered on open-ended challenges without one right answer.

Problem Solving Teaching Tips

Beyond core frameworks and strategies, there are several key teaching practices that will develop strong problem solving mindsets for lasting success:

Praise Effort, Not Innate Ability

Children praised for effort develop grit and perseverance to keep trying when faced with setbacks. Children praised for intelligence or talent alone are more likely to avoid challenges and give up easily for fear of losing perceived smartness. Praise should emphasize hard work, focus, creativity, teamwork, and improvement.

Allow Productive Struggle

When students become frustrated during problem solving, resist the urge to step in immediately. Let them wrestle with challenges and try multiple approaches. Offer just enough guidance to keep momentum but avoid providing answers directly. Struggle builds resilience.

Be a Facilitator, Not Just an Expert

Rather than lecturing students on what they should do, ask probing questions to guide them to their own insights. Let them learn through experimentation and discussion with peers. Shift the role of the teacher from answer-provider to learning facilitator.

Make It Relatable

Use real-world examples and scenarios students encounter in daily life to pique interest and motivation for solving similar problems in class. Tie challenges to students’ personal aspirations, cultural backgrounds, and current events relevant to them.

Encourage Teamwork

Have students work in small groups to solve problems collaboratively. Different perspectives and strengths improve solutions. Teach strong teamwork practices like assigning roles, taking turns, listening, and resolving conflicts.

Be Flexible on Assessment

Focus grading on effort and creative thinking rather than standardized right or wrong answers. Praise novel solutions and insights even if flawed. Award partial credit for strong process even without perfect outcome. Creativity thrives with psychological safety.

Keep an Open Mind Yourself

Model continuously learning and improving your own problem solving skills. Think aloud as you tackle challenges to share your own internal process. Welcome student ideas and feedback to improve teaching strategies. Adopt a growth mindset.

Real-World Problem Solving Opportunities

While classroom challenges prime problem solving abilities, there’s no substitute for applying skills to real issues students encounter outside school. Provide opportunities to practice in authentic situations:

  • Passion Projects – Have students identify issues aligned to personal interests and propose creative solutions. Support implementing their solutions.
  • Career Exploration – Connect with professionals who solve problems daily. Shadow them to understand real decision processes and constraints.
  • Volunteerism – Find opportunities to provide community service addressing problems like homelessness, environmental conservation, youth mentoring, or poverty.
  • Simulations – Immerse students in experiential scenarios modeling real-world environments like courtrooms, hospitals, non-profits, or businesses.
  • Case Studies – Analyze real challenges organizations have faced through examples like business school cases. Discuss solutions.
  • Competitions – Enter contests with defined problems like designing sustainable cities or cleaning oil spills. Apply classroom skills.
  • Student Government – Have students lead real school improvement initiatives like recycling programs, welcoming new students, event planning, or fundraising.

The more students can connect learnings to life outside school, the deeper their problem solving skills become. Keep exploring ways to engage them with authentic challenges.


In closing, developing strong problem solving abilities should be a top priority for educators in today’s rapidly evolving world. By teaching a structured process, fostering creative mindsets, and providing scaffolded opportunities to practice, we can equip students with the critical thinking skills needed to overcome challenges and find success. Problem solving is a complex lifelong journey, but with our support as guides along the way, students can gain the courage and strategies to own their learning and shape a better future. Let the problem solving adventures begin!

Frequently Asked Questions

How early should we start teaching problem solving skills?

Encourage play-based experiential problem solving with simple challenges starting as early as preschool. Structured instruction can begin in early elementary school at a basic level and increase in sophistication through high school and beyond. The key is meeting students at their developmental level.

Which is more important – creative thinking or analytical thinking?

Students need both capacities. Creative thinking sparks novel solutions while analytical thinking evaluates options for workability. Highly effective problem solvers are able to fluidly switch mindsets between creative divergence and analytical convergence.

Is there an ideal problem solving process I must follow?

There are many excellent problem solving frameworks, but avoid over-prescriptiveness. Leave room for students to get creative within structured guides. The most important mindset is continuously experimenting and improving strategies through practice rather than believing any singular approach