Every living thing on our planet, from the tiniest bacteria to the bluest whale, needs to solve problems to thrive. Finding food, averting danger, and maintaining complex relationships are just a handful of important ongoing tasks that animals and humans must constantly figure out, enabling them to live safe and fulfilling lives.
For a child to grow into a confident, capable adult, they’ll also need to solve plenty of problems. And it starts when they’re just teeny babies. Crying is instinctive for a newborn, but depending on how her parents respond, she’ll quickly learn whether the screeching gets her what she wants – milk, a nappy change, some comfort, or any other of her needs.
Once six or so months have passed, she may have figured out the problem of getting to places, almost certainly on her backside and probably in reverse. A few more weeks and the concept of ingesting liquid from a cup may also have been mastered, and at this point she might start to think that nothing is beyond her.
Oh, if life were that easy! With every passing year, just as with the little girl above, your child will need to use their problem-solving skills to mature and succeed. Teachers might understand this better than anyone else.
Every day they attempt to guide and instruct children on the ways of the world, gifting them the knowledge, skills and autonomy that are necessary for lifelong learning. And a large chunk of this is in the form of problems. They’ll ask their students to calculate the area of a square; to infer a character’s mood in a story; to deduce the age of a rock layer using fossil dating, and countless other challenges that require a subset of skills and traits necessary for effective problem-solving.
Fast-forward some years, and our cup-wielding, bum-shuffling baby has blossomed into a nine-year old. In class, her teacher asks her to write a story about a sad old witch living in the woods. The little girl dislikes this because words are not her forté, but she delves into her imagination anyway, exercising her creative skills as she spins a hopeful tale of adopted black cats and rediscovered love. Problem done and B achieved.
A couple of years later, the teacher gives her a bunch of incomparable fractions and asks her to make them equivalent, and when finishing after just a couple of minutes, her teacher ups the ante with more complex examples usually reserved for the year above. The girl taps into her abstract thinking abilities as well as her aptitude for logic, and gleefully speeds through the harder problems. A+.
During a science lesson, she partners up with her friend and the two of them work together to describe how liquids move compared to gases, and consider some reasons why they’re so different. Here she’s exercising her curiosity, teamwork and resourcefulness. The two of them secure a B+, and their relationship advances to “best friend” status. Every one of these challenges taps into the girl’s problem-solving abilities, each of them unique and equally important for her to exercise.
One of the beautiful things about school is that children can learn how to solve problems in a safe environment, and teachers take full advantage of this. Up until the very final years and exams, there are no consequences for getting the wrong answer – just more support. So children have the wonderful freedom of being able to strengthen their problem-solving abilities for a variety of challenges, whether in the classroom, for exams, or as part of skill-based academic competitions like ICAS (in fact, the problems described above have been adapted straight from ICAS questions). As children grow, getting better and better at solving the challenges before them, they are being prepared for further education or the workplace, where their problem-solving skills will be tested to whole new levels.
Our no-longer-little girl is now 19, sat at a computer in a university classroom with her brow furrowed. Her resilience is being thoroughly tested as she tries to write a line of code that will pull the right information from several databases. After 15 minutes and as many attempts, the data flashes up on her screen and she beams.
A few months later she is asked to spin up some additional web servers to handle the busy Black Friday period for a dummy e-commerce website – a problem that requires her to mathematically calculate just how many servers she needs to satisfy the expected capacity. Luckily for her, the masses of problem-solving neurons she needs were forged long ago, and they burst into action, helping her to solve the challenge. In one of her lectures, as she sits next to who must surely be the most handsome boy on Earth, she remembers the very first ice-breaking joke she made to her best friend, and adopts the same strategy. It works like a dream.
As she walks into the office of her first data analyst role a few years later, belly full of butterflies but heart filled with courage, our girl will be blessed with the experience necessary to crack the problems that come her way; to recognise them and define them; to conjure up various solutions and evaluate the best options, and to select a winner and implement it with confidence. She will be equipped to help the company achieve its goals, and in turn, achieve some of her own.
The worthy guidance of her teachers and parents and the many problems they’ve asked her to solve have helped her to become career-ready, able to think outside the box; to reason, to communicate, to understand, to listen, to take on feedback, to build relationships, and perhaps most importantly, to make good choices. They have created a true lifelong learner with the confidence necessary for success.
This is the power of problem-solving.