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Every Day Problem-Solving

Everyday Problem-Solving
Head for the Edge,January 2002

Donde esta el retrete?
Una cerveza muy frio, por favor.
Hasta la vista. Adios.

After two years of high school Spanish 30 years ago, that is the extent of my remaining ability to converse with the folks in Spain and Mexico in their native tongue. Thank goodness my accent is so bad that most Spanish speakers reply in English.

It’s not that Nellie Kingfield from Sac High School was a poor teacher. Quite the opposite. Despite being at least 150 years old at the time, she taught our small class very well. As I remember, I even received a nice certificate for placing high on a national Spanish exam.

So what happened over the years to all that vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation that I acquired in Mrs. Kingfield’s class??

While some of my coworkers might suggest an early onset of Alzheimer’s, my loss of skills was the result of lack of practice. I’ve not traveled extensively to any Spanish speaking countries and my Hispanic friends are fluent English speakers. As we all know, if we don’t use the skill, we lose the skill.

I am concerned that when we base our information problem-solving instruction around a single giant unit or two each year, students through lack of opportunity to practice also forget all these important defining, locating, accessing, synthesizing, communicating and evaluating skills. It’s why we seem to re-teach the use of the library catalog, search engines, website evaluation, online periodical databases, and even word processing commands year after year to the same group of students who seem to have once grasped them.

Practicing information problem solving needs to be a daily activity for every student in our schools, not just a biennial “event.”

It’s easy to quickly brainstorm a whole raft of information problem solving mini-activities that can be done in either the media center or classroom:

  • Use the Internet to check the weather forecast and make a recommendation about dress for the next day.
  • Search and report an interesting fact about the author of the next story being read by the class.
  • Email students in another class to ask their opinions on a discussion topic.
  • Recommend a movie or television show to watch the coming weekend using a critic’s advice.
  • Find two science articles that relate to the current science unit. Evaluate the credibility of the sources of information. Locate a place from a current news headline or class reading on an online map resource like <www.mapquest.com>.
  • Recommend a book to a classmate based on other books that classmate has read using the school’s library catalog or an Internet source.
  • Update the class webpage with interesting facts from units studied and links to related information on the web.
  • Estimate the number of calories and fat grams in the meal served in the cafeteria that day.
  • Find a “quote of the day” on a specific topic and use a graphics program to illustrate and print it out.

Note that most of these tasks take fewer than ten or fifteen minutes for a skilled information searcher to complete. Each has direct relevance to the student’s “real” academic or personal life. Reporting the results of the research is informal and interesting. Most of these activities are meaningful ones that adults do as well.

Media specialists can help teachers make daily information problem solving a reality for all students by:

  1. Making sure the media center resources are available throughout the school day as well as before and after school. Even media centers with scheduled class located in a small physical space can handle small numbers of students coming in from classrooms. We need to let teachers know that these individuals are welcome at anytime even if the media center is “booked.”
  2. Suggesting such activities to classroom teachers. Tapping into the natural curiosity of students is a sure fire way to improve not just skill attainment but classroom climate as well. Asking students to answer genuine questions shows respect for their intellect. The results are often personal and open to interpretation allowing for stimulating classroom discussion. As media specialists, we should be informing and advocating for such activities through both our newsletters and collegial conversations.
  3. De-emphasizing formal research units that do not require original conclusions. The big projects that do every step of the Big6 process seem to be staple of most schools’ curricula. But how accurately does this approach to dealing with information reflect how adults conduct inquiry as a part of their jobs or personal life? Most of us do little-bitty inquiry “projects” everyday. Where do I get the best price on that lawnmower? How do I install an FTP client on my computer? What’s a good book on scuba diving? How should I dress for tomorrow’s weather? Daily mini-lessons taking a single aspect of the inquiry process provide practice that more accurately resembles the kinds of problem-solving adults actually do. Work in your curriculum committees to see if the daily approach can be substituted for the single giant research unit.
  4. Developing a set of benchmark skills for information problem solving. It is still our job to assess the skill acquisition of each of our students. Rather than a final checklist of skills completed at the end of a large unit, students need a handy list of skills that they themselves can check off as they complete these mini-information literacy activities. Such self-assessment is not only easier on the teacher and media specialist, but better for the student as well.

As a profession, let’s work toward a school culture in which problems are solved and questions are answered everyday, throughout the day.

!Bueno suerte!

PS. “Brain research shows that permanent learning only takes place when research activities are assigned frequently enough that students can exercise and develop the essential skills of critical reading, writing, higher-order thinking, and presenting ideas and opinions with a purpose.

Brain research also shows that these activities must be related to student interests about their world and provide the opportunity for them to develop their own “reasoned opinions” based on researched facts and expert opinions. This desired learning is impossible to do for all students when schools depend on the “term paper” as their only research strategy.

A recent study of Social Studies teachers indicates that the age of the term paper is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by shorter and more frequent types of mini-research.” Education Week – November 20, 2002.

Posted on Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 10:51AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments3 Comments

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Reader Comments (3)

In college, research methodology is used quite a bit to discover new things and test new ideas. Most research techniques use some kind of problem-solving methodology. If you learn how to solve problems now, you will be able to approach many academic situations with the tools you need to handle them.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBathrooms Sheffield

On a very elementary level, we do this every week in my library with the Question of the Week. The process is simplified greatly for third, fourth and fifth graders by providing a single resource (World Almanac for Kids), but the skills are the same -- identifying the question, determining keywords or subjects, choosing index or table of contents, using alphabetizing skills, skimming, scanning, restating in the student's own words. The kids love it and I am constantly amazed about which students are motivated to try it as the year goes on. The game of Almania provides many of the same challenges. This is ideal practice for students who are seldom asked by their teacher to use a print reference for anything anymore.

Hi Maggi,

I am sure good teachers and librarians have been doing exactly this for many years. I appreciate the reminder!


May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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