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Teaching kids problem solving is basically teaching them a procedural process. That is aided when they are new to it by having a job aid written in their own handwriting. This serves a few purposes.

  1. They have a job aid to help in the practice exercises
  2. Writing the steps reinforces them in their head
  3. They practice making their own job aid, which is a pattern that will help them

There are a variety of problem solving processes out there. The type of problem solving I am talking about is not for math problems, but for leadership problems, people problems, system problems, machine problems, etc. I suggest that this is a key skill for kids to know and practice. I will show the one I used with my own children. It combines engineering style problem solving with common patterns like the PDCA cycle. It is good to iterate through the PDCA cycle multiple times. Many smaller, less harmful or costly experiments are better than one large, grand, potentially more harmful or costly experiment.

I’m intentionally avoiding the vocabulary that adults use for problem solving processes for the younger version. For the older version I add “Adults call this…” to layer in the vocabulary after they have practiced.

The following short version for younger kids.

Describe the problem What made you think there is a problem? State the problem What do I know? Why is it happening? Create Ideas - What could we do? Explore Consequences of Choices What's the best thing to do? Try to Solve it Plan - How do we go about it? Do Check - Did we solve it? Adjust Celebrate Get Better

The following version is for young adults.

``` Describe the problem (adults call this ‘Cognition’ and ‘Problem Definition’) What made you think there is a problem? (adults call these ‘Symptoms’) What did your body tell you? (Eyes, Ears, Nose, Tongue, Touch, Feelings) What is making you think there is a problem? Worries? Concerns? If the initial problem is large, vague, or unclear, clarify more State the problem What did you want or expect to happen? (adults call this a ‘Goal’) What actually happened? Describe the gap Gap = Expected results - Actual results = Problem (no gap = no problem) State the problem in one sentence Write it down to help focus on right thing

Gather Data What facts are important (adults say ‘relevant’)? Re-read your problem statement. Write down the facts you find Go see at the place where the problem happens What did your body tell you? (Eyes, Ears, Nose, Tongue, Touch, Feelings) What are inputs and outputs? What measurements could help? Intuition? What do I know? What is still unknown? What information is missing or not needed? Notice any patterns over time? How big is the problem? Do you need adults to help? Ask 5WH - Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?, How Much? When = Timing When was the last time expected = actual? Day? Time of day? What changed around that time? Who is involved in the problem? Who cares if it is solved? Do they have a preferred solution already? Are feelings important? What will we know when we solve the problem? How will we know we solved it?

Why is it happening? (adults call this ‘Identify Cause(s)’, and some adults forget this) Think what could have caused the gap (adults call these ‘Possible Causes’) What are your ideas? Why do you think that? What are other people’s ideas? (older kids) Draw a fishbone cause and effect diagram Go back to gather more information if needed Which cause best fits your information? (adults call this the ‘Root Cause’) Write down this cause to help focus

Create Ideas - What could we do? What are the range of different ways of solving it? (adults call this ‘Divergent Thinking’ or ‘Generate Alternatives’) What has already been tried to solve it? Think or talk about different ways of solving it (stopping or countering the cause) Mindmap your options Give each choice a name or label

Explore Consequences of Choices (adults call this ‘Convergent Thinking’ or ‘Select Best Solution’) Decide this by asking Why that way? Why then? Why there? Why them? Explore consequences - Ask “What might happen if…?” for each solution, does the predicted outcome solve it? Cause-oriented? How does this solution reduce the effects of the cause? How does this solution stop that cause from happening again? What is available to solve the problem? Time? Helpers? Pens and paper? Places you can use? Money? Estimate how much work or effort it will take. Is this realistic? Any limits? (adults call this ‘Constraints’) How important is timing for a solution? Is it safe? Will helpers want to help? How flexible is this solution if things change? What could go wrong with this solution? (adults call this ‘Risk’) What might go better than expected with this solution? (adults call this ‘Opportunity’) How else can I do or consider this?

What’s the best thing to do? Zero-in by getting rid of any solutions that don’t fit well Pick from the surviving choices the solution that you think best fits the problem

Try to Solve it (adults call this ‘PDCA’ or the ‘Deming Cycle’) You may go through PDCA more than once Plan Is it safe? Told adults what you intend and got permission to continue? Do you need a temporary fix while you solve it? Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?, How? Focused on the cause? Action plan = Steps you plan to follow What do you predict will happen? Who’s help do you need? What have other people done? (if similar enough to help) Who will do what? What do you need? Time? Helpers? Pens and paper? Places you can use? Money? Back plan - work backwards from the end, step by step Do you want to just fix it like it was or make it better? What could go wrong with your plan? How can you work around that? What might go better than expected? How can you encourage that? Do Who do you need to tell? Try to solve the problem = Use your action plan Check How fast can you check if the solution is working? (faster is better) Did it work? Did what actually happened match what you predicted? Did the results stop or reduce the effects of the cause? Did the results solve the original problem statement? How do you know? What information told you? What did your body tell you now? (Eyes, Ears, Nose, Tongue, Touch, Feelings) Did it stop the cause? Did it fix the problem? Is the gap still there? Is your fix good enough? Why? Adjust If not fixed Make needed changes, improvise Try again Mistakes happen, it is okay if you learn from them If you fixed this cause, but it did not fix the problem, you may need another cause If fixed What else should be done to make sure it does not happen again? Celebrate Celebrate It worked! Feel good! You solved a problem! Thank any helpers!

Get Better (adults call this ‘Lessons Learned’ or Continuous Improvement’) What went well? What did not go so well? How can you do better next time? What can we share with others about what we learned? (older kids) How can we standardize successful approaches?
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Have the child write the short version on an index card so they can use it as a job aid while working on early practice problems. Depending on their age and fine motor skills, you may need a bigger card when they are younger because their handwriting is larger.

Get them a picture of the PDCA cycle.

The next problem that comes up, instead of the adult just fixing it, stop and ask the kids to pull out their problem solving index card and collaborate with you on solving a real problem.

As they have more practice opportunities with adult feedback, they will develop confidence in the problem-solving process, they will become more capable at solving problems.

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KW Lanham


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