“Solve the Problem”: An easy way to turn “I can’t” into “I can!”

It’s a common refrain in schools across the country: “I can’t do this.” I hear it in the classroom and I hear it at home with my own kids. I often hear it before the child has even looked at the problem in front of him. I sometimes hear it after the child has done 5 of the same type of problem in row correctly.

I will admit that this kind of defeatist whining is on my personal pet peeve list. “Why are we raising a generation of kids who aren’t willing to try?” I’d think. “Why don’t kids assume they can do a problem and start off with a sense of ‘oh yes I can’, instead of ‘oh no I can’t’?” But I’ve moved beyond this kind of thinking and I’m here to say that there is something concrete we, as teachers, can do to help kids of all ages, grades, abilities, interests, and attitudes move beyond it too. And by doing this one simple thing, we can simultaneously help these kids be better prepared students, workers, parents, and citizens. In short, this one simple thing has the potential to change their lives.

Now, I know you are wondering what scheme I’m going to propose, how much it is going to cost, and how hard it is going to be to implement in your classroom, so let me get to the point. All you have to do is say 3 easy words: “Solve the Problem” whenever you hear an “I can’t do it” in your classroom. Here’s how it works. Child A looks at a math problem and utters, “I can’t do it.” You say, “That’s OK. But figure out a method you can use to solve this problem.” You might even brainstorm some examples with your class so that there is a bank of ready-made problem solvers listed somewhere in your classroom. Here are some examples my class came up with: Ask a friend for help. Look at other examples. Google it. Ask the teacher. Break the problem down into smaller parts. Look it up in a book.

Once you have a list, you can ask Child A to pick a method that works for him or her and solve the problem in front of them. It may take a few reminders, but “Solve the Problem” will become a mantra that every kid in your class will learn to recognize and respond to.

I’ve become such a fan of problem solving because problem solving is the key to pretty much any challenge these kids will face in their lives. I’m thankful to the core curriculum for making problem solving a priority. I like the power being able to solve a problem gives back to the student. But most of all, I love how I’m helping to set all my students up for future success by giving them the tools they need to solve a problem, no matter how large or small that problem might be, what form it might take, or how old they are when the problem comes along.