Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

April 8, 2014 § Leave a comment


All roads lead to Rome.  There are always several ways for us to solve a problem.  It’s important to help your students develop the critical thinking and problem solving abilities.  I read an article talking about the “Pampered Child Syndrome.”  Any of you get the idea what that means?

Due to this syndrome, more and more children lose the abilities to solve the problems they encounter in their daily life.  As educators, we do need to challenge ourselves first.  You all did a good job in trying something new for the stop animation infomercial project.  For the rest of this semester, I am going to push you all more to walk out of your comfort zone.  I think that is a good way to learn, right? So let’s spend a few classes talk about several important topics in the 21st century learning– critical thinking and problem solving.  These two will lead us to another two topics– problem-based learning and project-based learning.   But first of all, let’s challenge ourselves a little bit.

PART One: Marshmallow CHALLENGE

We need 3-4 people in the table. Your team’s challenge is to build the tallest freestanding structure with spaghetti and a marshmallow. You will have ingredients of 20 spaghetti strips, 1 yard of string, marshmallow, 1 yard of masking tape.

Here is a direction:

  1. Build the Tallest Freestanding Structure: The winning team is the one that has the tallest structure measured from the table top surface to the top of the marshmallow. That means the structure cannot be suspended from a higher structure, like a chair, ceiling or chandelier.
  2. ✦The Entire Marshmallow Must be on Top: The entire marshmallow needs to be on the top of the structure. Cutting or eating part of the marshmallow disqualifies the team.
  3. ✦Use as Much or as Little of the Kit: The team can use as many or as few of the 20 spaghetti sticks, as much or as little of the string or tape. The team cannot use the paper bag as part of their structure.
  4. ✦Break up the Spaghetti, String or Tape: Teams are free to break the spaghetti, cut up the tape and string to create new structures.
  5. ✦The Challenge Lasts 18 minutes: Teams cannot hold on to the structure when the time runs out. Those touching or supporting the structure at the end of the exercise will be disqualified.
  6. ✦Do you understand the rules?  Ok, this will be fun.


PART TWO: Problem solving group discussion

Within your group – respond to one of the following questions:

  1. There are 2 types of problems: open-ended and close-ended. Which was the marshmallow challenge?
  2. How is the marshmallow challenge an inquiry activity?
  3. Could  the marshmallow challengebe considered problem-based learning?
  4. When have you experienced the problem-based learning approach in your classes? (What is problem-based learning?)
  5. How is this connected to critical thinking? For that matter, what IS critical thinking?



Critical thinking is a hot topic in the 21st century learning, but it is not a new idea at all.  Researchers have been working on this topic for more than 2500 years!  Let’s see how it is defined according to the experts.

Here is an interesting video to tell you about critical thinking– Critical Thinking Explained.

Have you thought about that?  You are thinking critically and solving problems every day!



Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources. Students:

  1. identify and define authentic problems and significant questions for investigation.
  2. plan and manage activities to develop a solution or complete a project.
  3. collect and analyze data to identify solutions and/or make informed decisions.
  4. use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions.

In the textbook we used before, they defined problem solving ability this way.

“Students apply critical and creative thinking skills to prior knowledge during the problem solving process. The end result of problem solving is typically some kind of a decision: choosing a solution and then evaluating it.” (p 155)

“Problem-based learning (PBL) is a teaching approach that combines critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and inquiry as students explore real-world problems. It is based on unstructured, complex, and authentic problems that are often presented as part of a project.” (p 156)


PART THREE: Learning Adventure Project (15%)

Today we are starting a new project, learning adventure. We will work on it for the next four classes. You have all created lesson plans, digital stories, a personal website, and more. Now it’s time to integrate all of your skills into one project.

RUBRIC: Here is the learning adventure project rubric.

One way I will suggest to all of you for this design is— Don’t follow the order of the rubric.  Think about the idea of BACKWARD DESIGN. We do it all the time.  Think about cooking.  Do you go buy everything and start to think about what you want to cook?  No!  You have the recipe in mind first and then go buy what you need to cook.  You have the products in your mind first.  So try to think about what you want your students to learn first!  And then think about how you are going to make learning happen!!


Before we get to all the details, let’s first look at some examples of Adventures created by former EDIT 2000 students. You are basically creating a web site for students, parents, and teachers. The site is meant to guide a student through an adventure of your choosing (of course, it’s nice to offer them choices within your adventure as well).

Adventures Down Under– An exploration of Australia

Purposeful Poetry

Go Green in 2014

Dream Vacation

What Makes A Healthy Student?


Here are some resources for you to think about your project.

  1. Tubric– If you want to use one of the Tubric to help you and your teammates to make your ideas into a good essential question, feel free to grab one.  But please return it to me before you go!
  2. Assessment Tool– This website is about assessment.  How can you assess your students?  If you do have trouble in thinking about something interesting to work on, start thinking about what kind of assessment you want to have for your learners.  Then maybe that will help you think about some good essential questions.
  3. Project-based Learning Database by BIE– You can search for projects.  This website is completely about PBL.  They have more hundreds of projects.  If you can’t come up with a good essential question, maybe you will find one from these projects.  Then you can design your own content.
  4. 20 Ideas for Engaging Projects–  Here are 20 ideas for PBL.  Maybe you can find a good one here.



After looking at the student examples, what questions do you have? How do you think the adventure could have been improved? Do you notice any missing elements of the adventure that could have made it better? Think on this – maybe as we work through the project, you will want to go about it differently. That’s okay! Just be sure to talk with me to let me know your ideas.

Individual OR Partners

You can work alone or with a partner for this project. I am open to people working alone, but you need to be forewarned that this can be a lot of work – being able to share the work load will help you stay on target.



1. Think about who you would like to work with and some possible topics for your project.



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