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Preparing Tomorrow’s Problem-Solvers

Preparing Tomorrow’s Problem-Solvers

The future is now. New technologies, innovations, and systems are introduced daily. The rate of change is happening faster and faster. Once upon a time, when you died the world looked very similar to the world when you were born. No longer. Genius inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil said, “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”

Moore’s Law states that computer processing speed will double every 18 months. With that improvement, other technologies improve and emerge. For example, soon we will have a map of how the brain works; medical teams will have access to our genetic makeup for preventative healthcare; and solar power will be affordable and powerful enough to power the entire world.

Job Skills Required for the Future

If the world is changing exponentially, what does that mean for the next generation that must solve the problems that arise and continue to create new innovations? It means that the days of memorization and listening to lectures are over. Children need to learn how to solve problems that don’t exist yet, using tools that don’t exist yet.

Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) believes that educators need to “help [students] to be creators and problem-solvers, and to distinguish between true and false information. Those are the critical skills that will help students survive in a world where they will have to be continually learning – doing things we can’t imagine right now.”

Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

To teach problem-solving skills, educators can no longer be “answer providers.” The format many of us remember from our school days is the teacher lectures on a topic, providing all the needed information. Homework is completed that reinforces the information provided. Finally, a test is given to see if the information was learned.

In this scenario, the teacher tells the students that 1 + 1 = 2. The teacher provides examples such as drawing circles on the board and counting them, and then holding up objects while the students count them. For homework, the children draw pairs of shapes and write 1 + 1 = 2 on a piece of paper.

In the new problem-solving job market, it is important for workers to be able to figure out 1 + 1 = 2 on their own. In order to do that, we need to rethink how we are teaching the children.  

Culatta believes the best way for children to learn problem-solving skills is for the teacher to issue challenges. The students must investigate, invent, and develop solutions for the challenge. Then the class discusses the solutions found; they discuss what went right, what went wrong, and how to make it work. Finally, the teacher provides additional insight. Culatta argues that it is not necessary for students to receive step-by-step instructions to figure out problems.

Josh Waitzkin, the inspiration for the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, created a non-profit education organization called The Art of Learning Project, structured on the principles in his book by the same name. His view on the future of learning is similar to Culatta in that it relies on children exploring and discovering answers for themselves. The vision of Waitzkin’s company is based on the principles of explore, connect, and develop. He believes that “When children explore how they learn they become empowered to take control of their learning, express themselves creatively, and develop a life-long love of learning.” He also emphasizes the importance of learning the connection between all subjects. “The core foundation of learning does not lie in the study of any particular subject, but in the thematic fibers that connect disparate subjects.” Finally, he states that the aim should be to “develop a generation of life-long learners who approach all their endeavors with creativity and passionate resilience.” (On a side note, if you are an educator, you can apply for free copies of The Art of Leaning and find lesson plans on his website at

Using Culatta and Waitzkin’s vision of learning the 1 + 1 = 2 scenario may look something like this:

The teacher asks the class to determine what one plus one equals and to be prepared to discuss in the next class how they determined the answer. The next day students share drawings of shapes with 1 + 1 = 2 written below the shapes. Some children demonstrate how they counted items like sticks or their fingers to determine 1 + 1 = 2. Others used the internet. One boy claims to remember the answer from watching Cookie Monster. There is then a discussion on the benefits of the different methods used and what methods did not work. Future homework or discussion is about discovering how this process and information can be applied to other things such as two plus three, two minus one, or how much a pack of gum and a deck of Pokémon cards cost.

Fail … Like a Genius®

Another attribute to developing problem-solving skills is learning to fail and learning how to get to the correct solution. This was implied in both Culatta and Waitzkin’s visions for learning.

This is not an easy lesson for many of today’s students who are pressured to succeed by parents, society, scholarships, and higher education. Having a 4.0-grade point average is no longer a guarantee of receiving a scholarship or acceptance into a university. While being perfect is helpful for those situations, the unfortunate reality is that always having the correct answer is not possible in a future workforce that requires creative thinking and innovative solutions to problems. Children need to learn how to fail before entering that world.

New products, processes, or services are never perfect at the first iteration. Things do not function as anticipated; people do not respond as planned; logistics don’t work as outlined. But to be successful at problem-solving the student must also learn what to do with failures. I developed a system called Fail … Like a Genius®. To successfully fail, the student must know three things about failure:

  1. How to embrace failure.
  2. How to learn from failure.
  3. How to reassess failure.

The first part of Fail … Like a Genius is to not let failure discourage you or to allow it to prevent you from exploring something new or different. Next, learn from the failure. Explore what went right, what went wrong, and what lessons were learned. Lastly, reassess the failure. Sometimes what looks like a failure is a great solution to a different problem or uncovers a new direction for a different audience. For example, the adhesive for Post-it® Notes was originally developed to be a super strong glue. It failed as a strong glue but was a success when a different use was identified. I cover the Fail … Like a Genius system in detail in my book, Conditioning Your Mind to Fuel Creativity.

Another challenge for educators is getting buy-in from parents that failure is acceptable when done correctly. To help with this challenge, I’ve created a Fail … Like a Genius® Worksheet that you can share with them and use with your students. You can download it for free by clicking the link.

Lifelong Learners

To survive in the future workforce, children must become lifelong learners. Available jobs and required skills change with advancing technology. If Moore’s Law holds true, then we need to give the children the tools to continuously learn.

Culatta nicely summed up the benefits of developing creative problem-solvers when he said, “Having creative-problem solving skills ensures students and professionals can continuously learn through success and failure, work within diverse teams, accept challenges, and take risks, all anchored in persistence, grit, and entrepreneurial spirit.” The future is NOW!

Contact me if you would like a free consultation on how BrainSpark can help your organization or school. Don’t forget to download your free Fail … Like a Genius® Worksheet to use with your students and share with parents and watch my video about failing like a genius

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