School program tackles hard task of figuring things out

Published: Thursday, Oct. 3 2013 12:30 p.m. MDT

Future Problem Solvers International starts teaching kids to figure it out, peel back layers of a problem beginning in grade school. It's a skill that will grow along with the child, advocates say. (Shutterstock) Future Problem Solvers International starts teaching kids to figure it out, peel back layers of a problem beginning in grade school. It's a skill that will grow along with the child, advocates say. (Shutterstock)

This story corresponds with an article posted on Oct. 4th, Let go so kids can figure out how to solve problems.

BUHLER, Kansas — Taliatha Holmes has a problem. But she's pretty sure it's not what it appears to be, that something else is going on.

Mosquitoes freak out her daughter, who is 11. So her mother is trying to analyze the problem using skills she started to hone in middle school and high school as a member of the Future Problem Solving Program International.

The school-based organization teaches kids starting in elementary school how to peel away layers of a problem to understand what lies at its core. Now Holmes is the organization's Kansas affiliate director.

"She's been debilitatingly scared of mosquitoes and I've been going through things to figure out what could be the problem here. Mosquitoes are not the problem here," Holmes said.

Children begin absorbing skills that will help them solve problems at a young age — if they're allowed to and mom and dad don't rush in to fix everything. It's an issue so important that school programs and others are also trying to help children become adept at handling issues as they arise.

Future Problem Solving is one of the most formal attempts, starting with kids around fifth grade. Each year, several topics are chosen, covering a broad range from social problems to environmental and much in between. This year, for instance, youths are looking at social isolation, how fertile land becomes desert, surveillance society and land transportation. The first two topics train young teams to analyze problems, the last two lead to competition and a chance to really demonstrate problem-solving skills.

For a couple of years when Holmes first joined the group in middle school, she laughs now, working through the problems made her brain hurt. Then drilling down through an issue to the central problem became second nature. "It's a program where you think of all the problems that could occur in a situation, then pinpoint the underlying problem, the most important one to solve. ... We all try to focus on how to solve problems, but sometimes we're not solving the right problem."

She wants her five children to have those skills, too.

In some states, you'd be hard-pressed to find a program. Others, like Kentucky, take it seriously. There, children must participate in an academic competition, culminating in a Governor's Cup. Kentucky, Texas and Florida probably have half of the Future Problem Solving participants in America, said Holmes.

Emphasis on problem-solving skills are more pronounced in gifted and talented programs, said Tina Romney, Utah's Future Problem Solving affiliate director. "Teachers in regular classrooms don't have time in their day to add anything extra," she said.

Often there's no funding and students who learn a specific six-step, problem-solving technique in late grade school may get to junior high and find to their dismay there is no program, she said.

It's not good news that future adults may grow up without developing tools to make good decisions or sort through problems in a methodical way, said Romney. Future Problem Solving focuses on team building, divergent thinking, brainstorming and crafting solutions. It encourages thinking fast on your feet, she noted.

"I think that as kids grow up, they are faced with decisions almost every day. As they get into junior high and high school, they are making crucial decisions about how they want to live, which college they should attend, what car to buy. This gives them a powerful tool with which to make those decisions. It's a creative tool that also provides a world perspective," said Romney.

Some experts worry children are being taught what they need to know to pass standardized tests, but creativity and problem solving are falling away. Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College and author of "Free to Learn," warned if children become less creative, American ingenuity will suffer. In Psychology Today, he wrote: "We are the great innovators, specialists in figuring out new ways of doing things and new things to do. Perhaps this derives from our frontier beginnings or from our unique form of democracy with its emphasis on individual freedom and respect for nonconformity. In the business world as well as in academia and the arts and elsewhere, creativity is our No. 1 asset."

Studies show, though, that creativity is lagging. A study by the College of William and Mary of creativity scores among school children found steep declines in ability to expand on an idea in an "interesting and novel" way.

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