ERIC Identifier: ED355040 Publication Date: 1993-00-00
Author: Britz, Joan Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Problem Solving in Early Childhood Classrooms. ERIC Digest.
Problem solving is the foundation of a young child's learning. It must be
valued, promoted, provided for, and sustained in the early childhood classroom.
Opportunities for problem solving occur in the everyday context of a child's
life. By observing the child closely, teachers can use the child's social,
cognitive, movement, and emotional experiences to facilitate problem solving and
promote strategies useful in the lifelong process of learning.
LEARNING THROUGH PROBLEM SOLVING
By exploring social
relationships, manipulating objects, and interacting with people, children are
able to formulate ideas, try these ideas out, and accept or reject what they
learn. Constructing knowledge by making mistakes is part of the natural process
of problem solving. Through exploring, then experimenting, trying out a
hypothesis, and finally, solving problems, children make learning personal and
meaningful. Piaget states that children understand only what they discover or
invent themselves (1963). It is this discovery within the problem solving
process that is the vehicle for children's learning. Children are encouraged to
construct their own knowledge when the teacher plans for problem solving; bases
the framework for learning in problem solving; and provides time, space, and
THE TEACHER'S ROLE
Changing through problem solving is
modeled by adults (Bloom, Sheerer, and Britz, 1991) and facilitated by the
teacher in the classroom environment. When teachers articulate the problems they
face and discuss solutions with children, children become more aware of the
significance of the problem-solving process. Being a problem solver is modeled
by the teacher and emulated by the children. The teacher's role is two-fold:
first, to value the process and be willing to trust the learner, and second, to
establish and maintain a classroom environment that encourages problem solving.
It is the attitude of the teacher that must change first in the problem-solving
classroom. Values and goals must be clearly defined to include a child-centered
curriculum, the development of communication skills, promotion of cooperative
learning, and inclusion of diverse ideas.
The teacher must be willing to become a learner, too. By being curious,
observing, listening, and questioning, the teacher shares and models the
qualities that are valued and promoted by the problem-solving process.
PLANNING FOR PROBLEM SOLVING
A curriculum that accommodates
a variety of developmental levels as well as individual differences in young
children sets the stage for problem solving (Bredekamp, 1987). Choices, decision
making, and a curriculum framework that integrates learning, such as Katz and
Chard's project method (1989), are especially appropriate for young learners.
The project approach facilitates cooperative learning and promotes diverse
ideas. Donna Ogle's K-W-L (what you KNOW, what you WANT to know, and what you
have LEARNED) is another method of organizing work that promotes problem
solving. Themes, units, webbing, and the KWL method are all ways of organizing
curriculum that can support problem solving (Britz and Richard, 1992). Beginning
with the needs and interests of the children, problem solving develops from
meaningful experiences important to the children. The teacher-designed
curriculum provides the classroom basis for these experiences.
For example, a second grade investigation of waste materials from a classroom
led one group of young children to explore the topic in an integrated way.
Reading, writing, counting, measuring, interviews of community people, and
science experiments were planned, initiated, and reported. Solutions to many
problems posed during the investigation were tried out and some were found to be
successful. Through group work, individuals were able to participate and
communicate as cognitive and social needs were met. Each child, at individual
levels and in individual ways, was successful within the group experience.
Problem solving empowers children.
PROVIDING FOR PROBLEM SOLVING
Problem solving is a skill
that can be learned and must be practiced. It is facilitated by a classroom
schedule that provides for integrated learning in large blocks of time, space
for ongoing group projects, and many open-ended materials. The teacher provides
the time, space, and materials necessary for in-depth learning.
1. Time: Teachers can provide for problem solving by enlarging blocks of
learning time during the school day. Because making choices, discussing
decisions, and evaluating mistakes takes time, large time blocks best suit the
problem-solving process. It is important that children know they have time to
identify and solve problems.
2. Space: Projects and group meetings may require an assessment of classroom
space. Moving desks and tables together facilitates communication and
cooperation in the classroom. Once the teacher has observed the patterns of
traffic in the classroom, equipment can be moved or eliminated to promote
3. Materials: The open-ended materials that are needed for the construction
and concrete solving of problems should be safe, durable, and varied.
Well-marked storage units should be easily accessible to children, and materials
should be available for ongoing exploration and manipulation. Access to a
variety of materials encourages children to use materials in new and diverse
ways. This freedom promotes problem solving.
THE PROBLEM-SOLVING MODEL
Individuals or groups can solve
problems. Group problem solving is important to young children because many
diverse ideas are generated. Both individual and group processes should be
included in the early childhood classroom. Becoming skillful at problem solving
is based on the understanding and use of sequenced steps. These steps are:
1. Identifying the problem,
2. Brainstorming a variety of solutions,
3. Choosing one solution and trying it out, and
4. Evaluating what has happened.
Often the most difficult of these steps is identifying the problem. If Bill
cries, "Alice is hitting me," the problem to be solved is not the hitting but,
rather, THE REASON WHY Alice is hitting Bill. Therefore, the investigation of
solutions must relate to the cause of the problem instead of its effect.
Brainstorming gives children practice in communication, negotiation, and
cooperation skills. Learning to express individual ideas in a diverse society is
important. By choosing and trying out a solution, learners develop empathy, come
to consensus, and share the responsibility of the decision. These are valued
learnings in a democratic society. Finally, by evaluating the problem-solving
process, children assess their choices and mistakes and learn to be independent
evaluators of their work.
The process of problem solving--making choices and learning from them--is
facilitated by teachers who observe, listen, and ask open-ended questions that
further the process: questions such as, "What will happen if...?" and "What
other ways can you think of...?" Problem solving becomes a cycle of learning
when mistakes are made and different solutions have to be tried. This discovery
process allows children to construct their own learnings. Most problems have
more than one solution; some problems cannot be solved. Experiences with these
sorts of problems promote learning in young children.
CHOOSING GOOD PROBLEMS
Goffin (1985) provides teachers with
guiding questions that will help them identify appropriate problems for young
children. Some of these are:
Is the problem meaningful and interesting?
Can the problem be solved at a variety of levels?
Must a new decision be made?
Can the actions be evaluated?
Problem solving is a way to make sense of the environment and, in fact,
control it. The process allows children in an increasingly diverse world to be
active participants and to implement changes. By including problem solving in
the early childhood classroom, we equip children with a life-long skill that is
useful in all areas of learning.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bloom, P.J., Sheerer, M., and Britz,
J. BLUEPRINT FOR ACTION: ACHIEVING CENTER-BASED CHANGE THROUGH STAFF
DEVELOPMENT. Lake Forest, IL: New Horizons, 1991.
Bredekamp, S., ed. DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE PRACTICE. Washington, DC:
National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1986. ED 283 587.
Britz, J., and Richard, N. PROBLEM SOLVING IN THE EARLY CHILDHOOD CLASSROOM.
Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1992.
Goffin, S., and Tull, C. "Problem Solving. Encouraging Active Learning."
YOUNG CHILDREN 40 (1985): 28-32. EJ 314 275.
Katz, L., and Chard, S. ENGAGING CHILDREN'S MINDS: THE PROJECT APPROACH.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1989.
Piaget, J. THE ORIGINS OF INTELLIGENCE IN CHILDREN. New York: W.W. Norton,
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