Monday, January 4, 2010

Problem Solving

Today a friend, who has kids about the same age as mine, gave me something new to think about. She was telling me how her oldest son (two and a half) is afraid of the dark. When he walks into his room and it's dark and he starts crying, instead of just flipping the light on for him, she goes and stands by him in the dark and calmly asks him what he needs to make it not dark. He thinks, and then says, "Light!" and she says, "Good, now what do you need to be able to turn your light on?" Again he thinks for a minute, and then says excitedly, "Stool!" And runs to get his stool and turns on the light. I assume that eventually he'll be able to think for himself to get his stool to turn on the light, without her guiding him every step.

It had never consciously occurred to me to create or allow opportunities for simple problem solving before. But it makes sense. In some of my readings recently, I've come across a few ideas from Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychological theorist, who said that the highest levels of learning occur when students are in what he calls the "Zone of Proximal Development" The ZPD is defined as "the zone above the most difficult task the person can do alone and below the most difficult task they can do with help". I'll try to clarify a little using the example of my friend. A two and a half year old is not able to comprehend on his own that when he walks into a dark room and gets scared that he needs to go find a stool and turn the light on. But with the help of his mom walking him through it, he is able to think about going to get the stool and turning the light on. At that point he is in the ZPD, and according to Vygotsky, that is when he will learn the most.

I think what I like most about the idea of giving our children opportunities to practice problem solving is that it doesn't just solve the problem for the kids, but it gives them experience solving their own problems. Which, in turn, will give them confidence to solve bigger problems in the future. If the kids can make it to adulthood with good problem solving skills, they will be so much better off. Trust me, I manage an apartment complex, I deal with plenty of adults who have zero problem solving capabilities. It's sad.

So, I think my new goal is to keep my eyes open for those little opportunities where I can help Scientist to solve his own problems. Wish me luck!

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