A Framework to Help Develop Solutions to Problems and Prepare for the Real World
Teaching Children How to Solve Problems and Develop Skills for Life
If there is one skill that would help our future generations succeed, it is this: problem-solving. Learning how to solve problems is the key to success no matter what field of study you choose. It is the number one skill that employers look for in potential candidates. And it is the number one skill used by entrepreneurs to create business opportunities that other people miss.
The framework I am about to explain encompasses not just problem-solving, but other top skills like critical thinking, creativity, and coordinating with others. Unfortunately, the majority of our school systems are stuck in an outdated model that primarily teaches memorization. We are dazzled by people who can recall facts and figures verbatim. But in an age where Google can answer questions in milliseconds, we really don’t have a need for people to retain information that can be retrieved so easily.
So, in a world of Google and the assistance of artificial intelligence, we need future generations to do what computers cannot — think intelligently, strategically, and empathetically.
The framework I am about to share has been used for decades by those practicing lean six sigma. We who practice it affectionately call it “DA-MAY-IK” which standards for:
While not as robust as the scientific method, it is easier to navigate and comes with a set of easy to understand tools. I will walk you through one way that you can teach children to navigate this framework.
The first step in the framework is the most important one. Here is where we define the problem we are about to solve.
“A problem well-defined is a problem half solved.”
― John Dewey
There are two important aspects of the problem you want them to capture. We speak of it in terms of “pain.” Relating pain to a problem is the most relatable way of getting anyone to articulate the vital aspects of the problem. The second aspect is the “who” of the people experiencing the pain-we call them the “customer” or “stakeholder.”
To help your children find “pain” in the world around them, you may want to ask:
“What is going wrong there? What is happening that should not be happening? What is causing people to be upset and who are those people?”
These simple questions will start them thinking. You should watch carefully here for the interest level and emotion involved as they speak. You can also help improve their communication skills by encouraging them to describe the problem in as much detail as possible.
Have them draw a picture or pictures of the problem. This will help them clarify their focus. Talk to them about what is the problem and what is NOT the problem. You want them to distill the essence of the problem.
Finally, come up with a problem statement to go with your picture. This statement should be no longer than three sentences. This forces them to be concise. Complexity and convolution are the enemies at this stage.
Once you have a clear picture and words describe the pain of the problem, you are ready to move on to the next step.
Here is where I think the fun begins. Now, you want to encourage your children to collect data that measures the pain in your problem statement and picture.
For example, a problem statement around frogs dying and going instinct might say:
Frogs in our local pond are dying. This is upsetting our ecosystem. The health of the pond is in danger.
Problem: Frogs dying
Who is impacted: Our ecosystem
Pain: Health of the pond
This simple example shows you how we can easily identify what to measure.
We can measure the problem: How many frogs are dying? What is the normal population of frogs in the pond? What is the history of frog population in the pond? (What other questions could you ask?)
We can measure who is impacted: How is the ecosystem impacted by frogs dying (the problem)? What can we measure to determine that impact? (NOTE: Pick no more than three measures here. Avoid the temptation to measure “everything.” That is called research and can take years to complete).
We can measure the pain: What are the measures of a healthy pond (pain)? How do we know when a pond is unhealthy (adverse impact)?
Just by asking these few simple questions, you should be able to generate a good list of things to measure. Go through the list and try to get down to two items that you believe are the most important to measure. These will be the same measures you will test after you implement your solutions to the problem.
In the example that I used, you may want to take it one step further to pull in a human-centric view of the problem. Remember, we should have defined the “customer” or “stakeholders” at this point. Have your children go back and create an empathy map for them. Here are a couple of simple examples:
An empathy map will help them connect with the human side of the problem. Asking “What do people think? What do people feel?” will bring out the emotional components. “What are people saying? What are people doing?” will help them see, in our example, the impact on the community and how people may be contributing to the problem. “What ae people hearing?” will reveal how people are being informed (or misinformed) about the problem.
I would not go fast on this part. It should generate thoughtful discussion. Ask open-ended questions to get them to think deeply about the impacts. I have found that this exercise can often reveal how the problem can be measured in a different way. (Drawing the map on paper posted on a wall is the best way to collect, review, and share the information).
At this point, it may also be useful to go back and revisit the problem statement. You may want to add a statement that encapsulates the human-centric view of the problem. They should now have a clear and concise problem statement and ways to measure the pain of the problem. Now, it is time to collect data.
Encourage your children to look for data that already exists. In our example, there may be published data about the health of the pond already available. If data is not readily available, you will have to help them develop a data collection plan.
Have them ask “How will I find this data? How will I collect this data? How will I measure the data? What supplies might I need to measure the data?” In our example about the pond, you may have selected to measure the pH of the pond. A simple and inexpensive pH meter can be purchased for this purpose.
You can also use this as an opportunity to discuss the science of measurement. Investigating this topic can be as simple or as complex as you need it to be. At a minimum, I recommend discussing the importance of accuracy and precision in measurements. There are many resources readily available on those two topics from basic pictorial representations to statistically defined.
You can also use this as an opportunity to introduce them to electronic ways to record their data (an important part of the next step in the process). The Google suite of tools is an easy way to do this without any additional expense.
Also, the data collection may include validating what they documented on the empathy map. Encourage them to talk to at least two people who can relate to the problem. Have them collect this data and add it to the map.
Once this initial set of data has been collected, either by direct measurement or gathered from research, they are ready to proceed to the next step in the process. In the next step, we will take this initial set of data (technically called “baseline data”) and review it.
This step is an opportunity to help your child develop his or her critical thinking skills. At this point, your child should have documented:
- A problem statement
- A picture of the problem
- An empathy map
- A data collection plan
- Baseline data
I recommend helping them identify a series of activities that will help them generate ideas for possible solutions to the problem. A great resource for different types of games you could use is listed on the website Gamestorming.com — a resource for creative problem solving.
This step can be a great introduction to statistics if numerical data was collected in the previous step. Basic concepts like average (mean), median, range, and standard deviation. Introduce them to ways to visualize their data by creating pareto charts and other graphs.
Have them go back and review the data that they collected. Have them create a mindmap of ideas to solve the problem. Have them create a picture of the solution (“Cover Story” is a fun way to do this). Get them to collect ideas from other people and add them to the mind map or create an affinity map. The goal here is to encourage creativity during the analysis to make things fun and interesting.
Before implementing improvements, they should come up with a prototype for their solution. Make this a craft project or use something like Legos so they get a real feeling of their solution. Encourage them to show their prototype to others and get feedback. This will give them some real life experience on how to share their ideas and receive feedback from others-critical skills to have in any team environment.
You can also have them test their ideas like a scientist. Have them come up with a theory and then test it to prove if it works. Here, they are learning how to conduct experiments and collect observations. Tell them to use the information they gather to improve upon or come up with new ideas.
Before they move into the next step of the process, make sure they review that problem statement and empathy map again. It is easy to get lost in analysis and develop solutions that may not be relevant to the problem. Here is where you can challenge them to rethink their problem statement and make changes if appropriate (that sometimes happens after analysis). This will teach them the importance of being flexible in their thinking.
At this point, they should have a good idea of the solution or solutions they want to implement. Have them create a plan to implement those solutions. The ability to plan tasks (project management) is a crucial and valuable skill. “Start-Stop-Continue” us a simple and easy to understand game that will get them to think about what they can improve, what they can stop doing, and what needs to continue in order to support their solution.
Now, for the fun part-improving the process and implementing solutions.
This is the part where you can encourage your children to take action on everything they have done up until this point. This can turn into an active project where they recruit participation from others to achieve their goals. You can work them on communicating their message to gain buy-in from others-another critical skill that any professional can use. I like using a change management framework to think about how the message is developed:
Developing Your Message
- Raise awareness — Help others see the problems you discovered; use the artifacts you have created
- Explain why — Help others understand the “why” behind the changes that need to be made (i.e. why is it important?)
- Explain how they can contribute — Help others understand their contribution to the problem and what they need to change to improve or implement the solution (develop a call to action)
- Train — Help others gain the knowledge and skills they need to support the changes
- Address concerns — Get their feedback and ask them to help you eliminate roadblocks
Be a cheerleader for them at this stage. They may encounter resistance, so be ready to offer your support when they do.
You also need to be prepared to watch them fail. Failure is a real part of life and this can be a great teaching moment on how to learn from failure. Its helpful to show them examples of how others have failed and recovered. They need to understand that the important part of this journey is “the doing” and not the accomplishment of a task. Learning to deal with failure is a part of life and this type of problem-solving gives them a safe context for dealing with it.
And if they succeed, celebrate in a way that is significant for them. This will encourage them to tackle the next problem with enthusiasm.
When this framework is used in a business process improvement initiative, developing and applying a control plan helps to ensure that the improvement is sustainable. Since this most likely will not be a concern, I would use the control step to develop a storyboard of their journey. You can encourage them to use a presentation format which will help them sharpen their communication skills. Options include:
- A video story
- An electronic presentation (Powerpoint or Google Slides)
- A written report
- A storyboard
- A poster presentation
- A skit or play (this can be fun!)
This can be an opportunity for them to gain recognition as a problem solver. I would encourage you to help them think about it from that perspective.
As I wrote this, I started thinking about how long it would take to lead a child through a project like this. Of course, that is highly dependent upon the subject chosen, the maturity level of the child, and the amount of support they are able to get. Six weeks or 90 days seems like a good starting point.
If you decide to try this with your children, I would love to hear about it. Thanks for reading! Now let’s get those children out there solving problems.