Thinking Up a Solution

“Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” This quote comes from science writer Robert Lewin. For me, it is an interesting statement of two different ways to approach teaching. Rote memorization was often used in mathematics, in spelling, in dates, and in science facts in our grandparents’ era. For many this seemed to work, at least at the time. But did all that information “stick” once the school year was over?

Walking around campus the past couple of weeks, I have had opportunities to see how your children are being taught at Derby. Certainly, there are some basics that need to be absorbed, be it through memorization, rhymes, mnemonics, or other “answers to remember.” More often than not, however, I was observing students being given a problem to solve that required them having to determine what they needed to know in order to accomplish the task.

Preparing for the 3rd Grade Invention Convention, students worked with magnets or circuits or sewing needles to solve problems, some that they themselves had invented. In a 5th grade math class, the topic was geometry but rather than memorize a formula, the students needed to think about what information was given in the problem and how they would then “construct” a method for finding area and perimeter. 7th grade is working on their year-end projects that integrate English, science and history. Inventions include the water wheel, the printing press and the radio. After investigating how a transistor radio works, one group of students constructed their radio out of used materials. It worked, picking up WBZ’s signal, but could not receive any other – until one student applied some creativity and developed a method to create a capacitor utilizing her notebook and aluminum foil. She and her team were then able to pick up a radio signal from another AM station!

In each of these stories, the teacher was not giving the students answers (formulas, ready-made directions, boxed kits) but problems that needed solutions. So it is in the world beyond Derby. “Teachers can change lives with just the right mix of chalk and challenges.” (Joyce A. Meyers) We are fortunate to have teachers who have learned the proportions for that mix. As we look forward to summer vacation, so too can parents change their children’s lives with the right mix of fun and challenges. I encourage you to give your children problems to solve. Planning an entire family dinner – purchasing, cooking, cleaning up after; deciding the amount of mulch needed for the garden as well as the cost of how to transport it home; making a spreadsheet to determine baseball team averages – there are many ways we can change “giving an answer” to “thinking up a solution” that will engage your child’s mind and stretch the thinking process.


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