Updated: Oct 7, 2020
We can't empower kids with problem-solving skills if we are the ones solving the problems. A few years ago, I watched in fascination as my toddler colored inside the lines after months of scribbling without control. One of the most rewarding parts of being a parent is witnessing the growth and development of children. How does this amazing process happen? How do kids learn and how does that inform the way we teach problem-solving?
STEM and STEAM education provides kids with tools for lifelong learning. The topics that we teach - digital arts, robotics, chess, and coding (DARCC) - all require critical thinking for success. Art and even writing require logical thinking to create something out of nothing. The ability to think independently is a necessary skill, and the understanding of how to nurture that is something that our team thinks about regularly and seeks to advance.
Ages and Stages
There is an age when students become capable of reasoning and logic. While all children are different, there is a general pattern. Jean Piaget, the first psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive development, is known for his work on child development. We are most interested in his last two stages of development for teaching coding and problem-solving skills, the operational stages.
While children are still very concrete and literal in their thinking from ages 7-11, the last stage of Piaget's theory beginning at age 11 involves an increase in logic, the ability to use deductive reasoning, and an understanding of abstract ideas.
The minimum ages for My Coding Place programs, which are 7 for beginners learning Scratch and chess and 9 for learning Python, were established using not only these developmental stages but also mechanical and engagement factors, with some languages requiring more typing and less graphics. Certainly our teens have displayed a stronger ability to think independently without requiring as much guidance as younger students. After we think about how students learn, we then want to consider how best to teach within that framework.
How To Teach Problem-Solving
Some studies show that high intelligence is nothing more than a great ability for pattern recognition and problem solving. We want to equip students with tools like coding, math, chess, etc that allow them to train their brain to solve problems. Our approach involves repetition and practice. We practice using loops and variables in almost every class, for example.
"New connections and pathways are fragile," says Swart a neuroscience lecturer at MIT, "and only through repetition and practice can those connections be established enough to become habitual or default behaviors."
In addition, we encourage two additional practices that help students succeed:
1) Plan And Evaluate
To teach kids to plan and evaluate, here is the general process and structure we follow:
define the problem
evaluate multiple solutions
identify the best solution
implement and get feedback
Students should have a plan to accomplish their goals, taking the time to think through approaches before starting to code or solving the problem.
2) Give Students Space
In order to make connections effectively, students need some internal struggle and conflict. Parents and teachers too readily step in to provide answers because it is awkward to see students struggling, and we want to help. It is also easier to give students answers then to lead them to an answer. We understand that students need building blocks, so it's a balance. They can't independently sew a pillow if they aren't taught how to thread a needle.
If we are always stepping in to make sure they get the right answer, when will they take the responsibility and when will they make mistakes so they can learn? If we are always there with the answer, what are they learning other than to depend on adults? We can't empower kids with problem-solving skills if we are the ones solving the problems.
How do kids learn? According to experts, children's capacity to think independently involves 4 stages of development. We can help support STEM learners before and when they are capable of more abstract thought and are developmentally ready to apply strategy and planning to their learning.
How do we teach? To teach problem-solving and coding, we use repetition and practice. In addition, we teach students to plan and evaluate, and we give students space by not being so quick to give them the right answer. We call this the Get Out Of The Way technique, appropriate and so important!
Understanding learning and exploring teaching techniques helps us empower students with the lifelong skill of problem-solving. We hope that the tools we equip them with will help them be successful in the years to come!
 Sobel AA, Resick PA, Rabalais AE. The effect of cognitive processing therapy on cognitions: impact statement coding. J Trauma Stress. 2009;22(3):205-11. doi: 10.1002/jts.20408