Solving Difficult Problems

At The Village School, we promise seven key things to our families. One of these is our promise to guide each of our learners to discover his or her most precious gifts so they can use them to solve difficult problems.

What kind of problems are we talking about? Do we mean problems related to the core academic areas? Are we talking about complex multi-step word problems or mastering that spelling list, reading drawer, or newest civilization challenge?

Actually, no. While these core skills are an important part of our learning design, they are tools that allow our learners to begin the work of solving difficult real-world problems.

As parents, we can sometimes lose sight of the real-world problems in our midst.

Recently, my oldest son was working on mastering the concept of rounding on Khan Academy. He was struggling while working on it at home and asked me for some help. Rather than sit with him for a few minutes or ask questions about what he’d tried so far, I jumped in to show him a rounding “trick” that could help him solve his problem. Happy with this new-found method of rounding numbers, he went along his merry way working through the remaining challenges on Khan. Problem solved.

Or not.

The very next day, as he was working through similar problems, he threw up his hands in frustration and yelled from the other room, “Mom, I forgot what you showed me! Ugh, can you come show me again?”

At that moment, I was reminded of something I already knew- quick, academic progress that feels good in the moment is not the same as deep, mastery based learning. I had lost sight of the actual problem.

For my son, he was facing the problem of how to use his time when didn’t understand something. Should he invest the time to deeply learn this particular math concept, watch the videos, do the practice problems, ask one of his peers for help or look for a shortcut- saving time but sacrificing understanding?

By stepping in the way I did, I had removed the difficult real-world problem that my son would face again and again throughout his life. The problem of time- how should we use it?

The slow, cumulative process of mastery based learning takes time. But we know, at The Village School and throughout the Acton network that it is this process that allows our heroes to learn to learn, learn to do, and learn to be- which is far more important than simply learning to know.

Knowing this, I always find it remarkable that our learners, on average, score one to three grade levels above their same aged peers on standardized tests. The truth of this fun fact is staring us right in the face: a child who knows how to learn can learn anything.

While academic progress is important, this is not the work of solving difficult problems.

While we celebrate a learner mastering his or her grade level in math or reading, what we are really celebrating is how this learner faced and solved the difficult problem of time to meet his or her goals.

Using your voice, solving a conflict, meeting a deadline, becoming a leader of yourself and your learning- this is the work. If our children learn how to do these things now, in a community that mirrors the real-world as much as possible, then they will be poised to solve the world’s most difficult problems when they encounter them.

Next time my son is struggling and looking for a “quick fix” as a way to solve his immediate problem, I’ll try my best to remember this.

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