Problem Solve
Mosquitoes,” the doctor said. “Mosquitos.”
“But how can a mosquito make a whole village sick? This week four children in our village died.”
“You live next to a swamp. The water is bad. That is a big challenge. We must find a way to safeguard the people.”
“Yes, I understand the urgency. But is it the mosquitoes or the bad water? Don’t we have to attack both problems at once?
“Both solutions are too costly for us. We have to find a simpler solution.”

In Africa, mosquitoes are a major health threat. There is no money for fancy sprays or poisons as used in the Western world. This large, complex problem has befuddled the world health community. Finally, an affordable solution has been found. Simple cotton netting put over beds at night protects the villagers when they are most vulnerable.
Problem solving asks the thinker to employ several less-complex skills, including such critical thinking skills as analysis and evaluation, as part of the process. Problem solvers also may rely on the other side of the cognitive coin, calling on creative thinking skills to help solve a problem or create innovative solutions to meet a challenge that seems overwhelming.
Problem solving comes in two versions: messy and clean. Messy (often called ill-defined) problems are authentic, real-world, multidimensional issues that can have many different valid solutions; they present challenges that are difficult to define. Clean (often called well-defined) problems are those that can follow a set formula or a sequence of exact procedures to reach a solution. Following is an example of each.
  • Clean: Two trains are speeding at each other with given speeds of 78 mph on the same track. They are 12 miles apart at 12:00 pm. At what time will they collide?
  • Messy: Mary hits her forehead with a whack. “OMG!” she texts her friend Kay. “What am I going to do? I’ve got two dates tonight. One for the prom and the other for the Bull’s game. I totally forgot. I just got flowers from both. These guys are really hot. OMG. Help! This is such a mess.”

This table provides examples of what problem solving might look and sound like in the classroom.
Looks Like
Sounds Like
Students with their heads together in groups.

Students using measurement tools.

Students using problem-solving graphic organizers.

Students using decision-making graphic organizers.

Students completing T-charts.
“What is the problem?”

“How do we define this problem?”

“What other ideas do you have?”

“Do we have accurate data?”

“Is our data sufficient? Reliable?”

Life is filled with challenges and problems. As children grow older, they rely less on others to solve their problems. Gradually, they become independent problem solvers who can get dressed, get to school, finish homework, and do their chores. Their problems become more complex, and they become aware of more and more challenges and problems that are out of their control-for example, water pollution, poverty, and wars in many lands.
Learning to solve different types of problems will contribute to students’ success in different domains. Messy problems are usually associated with the arts, literature, and social sciences such as psychology and anthropology. They are also the most prevalent problems students face in their everyday lives dealing with people and situations outside the classroom. Clean problems are at home in science and mathematics. Sometimes a situation involves both clean and messy problems. For example, when a fire inspector is trying to find the cause of a fire, clean problems (mathematical formulas) may be part of a larger strategy to solve messy problems.
Students benefit most when learning about the problem solving process enhances their dispositions about problem solving. Included among the characteristics need for productive problem solving are risk-taking, questioning assumptions, openness to ideas, willingness to connect divergent ideas, a respect for data, and attention to precision and accuracy.

Bellanca, J. A., Fogarty, R. J., & Pete, B. M. (2012). How to teach thinking skills within the common core: 7 key proficiencies of the new national standards. (pp. 31-33). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.