The question What are 21st century skills? is often answered by pundits, schools, and for-profit companies with catchy, possibly brand-able, lists. These lists are good clickbait but no substitute for ongoing attention to the timeless and emerging competencies that students must master to be prepared for the real world of their adulthood.

Whatever terminology might take hold around 21st-century skills, there is one skill that will never go out of style: problem solving. Wherever we turn—climate change, immigration, health care, social inequality, technology addiction, the transformation of workforce sectors, the fragility of democracy, terrorism, and of course, the nitty gritty of everyday life—problem solving is required.

Teaching problem solving

If problem solving cuts across every area of life, why aren’t we teaching our children how to do it and how to improve at it? Probably because it requires a level of attention and personalization that is achievable only when the student-teacher ratio is far lower than what you will find in most classrooms.

Queens Paideia believes firmly that the underlying components of problem solving—the thinking skills required for assessing and then reasoning through a problem—can be taught and learned when education is personalized. In our case, through a 6:1 student-teacher-ratio. Just like any skill, problem solving should be learned step-by-step, with ample practice, feedback, and more practice and feedback. Students must have opportunities to solve problems in every area of their lives, both at school and outside of school.

Too often in school, the emphasis is on problems that have yes-no, multiple choice, and fill-in-the blank answers. The thinking for these question types is different from the analytical types of thinking that problem solving requires, such as categorizing, prioritizing, trial and error, comparing, and weighing short-term against longer-term benefits, to name just a few. As with decoding a math word problem where the premier question is, What is this problem asking of me?, there are sets of questions, heuristics, one can ask to gauge the nature of any problem and therefore what steps might be needed to solve it. In other words, it’s necessary to pull back to assess what is being asked before rushing to solve.

This is what successful adults do automatically, and it is what we must teach children to do, with competence and with the forbearance to accept potentially negative outcomes like disappointment and newly revealed problems as a consequence. We encourage this pulling back all the time at Queens Paideia. Our learning managers engage students with a focus on heuristics around problem solving in every subject through conversation and well-placed prompts.

We should not ignore the problem

If it seems like a stretch to connect the dots between today’s K-12 education to a future capacity for problem solving as an adult, then we are acknowledging the serious limitations of the U.S. education system. K-12 has largely been relegated to a phase in life when our children mainly strive to produce fast, correct answers so that they can get high scores on tests and get to the most sought-after next level of school. This makes for easy data collection and quantification of “ability” in schools that have no choice but to maintain large classes; and for busy, anxious parents, it’s an easy way to answer, “How’s my kid doing?”

It isn’t that a person cannot learn critical problem-solving competencies once they are older. Most functional adults do to some extent. But the foundations for the highest levels of achievement and proficiency are laid in the formative years. This applies as much to a person’s thinking skills as it does to any behavior in their repertoire.

Alas, the one thing we cannot teach our students is the wisdom that comes from problem-solving experience: the judgment acquired from mistakes and successes. It is largely in K-12 that truly secure foundations for this badly needed wisdom can be laid.

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