How to prepare pre-service teachers to be complex problem solvers

Problem-solving is central to the daily work of teachers. In education, people work to improve the lives of students, often very young children, who are on steep learning curves, academically, socially, emotionally, physically and morally. Often, a quick chat with a student can solve a problem, but sometimes further steps need to be taken when other factors may be impacting on the life of the student. For example, a student is late for class on consecutive occasions and appears disengaged when they do so. The teacher needs to be alert to these ‘signs’ and take steps to intervene to see what the actual problem is without jumping to conclusions about the student’s behaviour. If such steps are carefully managed, the teacher may find that with some small interventions, such as allowing the student to work with students of their choice, the problem may be resolved. 

Preparing for the Teaching Profession focuses on how teachers can plan to effectively deal with a range of problems, from relatively straightforward problems to those that can be classified as complicated, and finally, those that are the most challenging, often referred to as complex problems. A complex problem can often be described as a situation that is caused by several factors that need to be understood before a resolution can be considered.

When a complex problem arises, there is likely to be no quick solution, different people will be involved with a variety of beliefs and positions about what the problem is, and often varying opinions concerning what should be done to bring about a solution. 

Tips to becoming a successful problem-solver:

  • Be quick to ‘nip problems in the bud’ before they become complicated or complex
  • Help students resolve their problems by carefully listening and supporting the student in a timely and age-appropriate manner
  • Take steps to get to know students, their interests, needs and challenges, and use this information in a proactive way to deal with issues when they arise
  • Recognise when a problem is complex in nature and adhere to the school’s procedures and policies for dealing with such problems
  • Seek collaboration with others involved to satisfactorily identify what is causing the problem and establish how the problem can be resolved
  • Appreciate that complex problems need to be carefully and sensitively dealt with, and take steps to fully inform and connect with all key stakeholders, including specialists when necessary
  • Persevere in the investigation of the possible causes of a complex problem
  • Monitor the success of the strategies employed in any management plan, and be willing to help moderate or change strategies when necessary
  • Recognise and respond calmly and objectively when others become emotionally upset by issues/experiences
  • Maintain written records of all meetings, including agreements reached and strategies to be employed. These should be signed off by all parties attending the meetings.

Strategies to help pre-service teachers develop their complex problem-solving skills

  1. Role Play

Small teams of pre-service teachers are given experience in responding to complex problems, involving a variety of stakeholders in a described setting. After a lengthy discussion of the nature of the problem and given the positions that might be taken up by various people – teacher, student, parents/carers and others – pre-service teachers prepare a role-play which they present to colleagues and staff. After the presentation, discuss the implications and outcomes of the role play

2. Practical workshops

Pre-service teachers in their final year of study visit local schools on a twice-monthly basis, to take part in workshops under the direction of an experienced teacher from the school. These workshops focus on the experiences of teachers dealing with real life, complex problems with students. The teacher-leader guides the pre-service teacher through the steps taken to help deal with the problem.

3. Teaching of strategy frameworks

 Pre-service teachers are directly introduced to problem-solving strategies that they can use to frame their approaches to complex problems. Some examples explored in Preparing for the Teaching Profession include keeping accurate records of student data, the establishment of Student Support Groups where teachers work collaboratively with parents and various experts, the design of Individual Learning or Behaviour Support Plans, and the differentiation of the curriculum. For other ideas read article Seven Steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace by Tim Hicks.

4. Professional Reflective Journals

Pre-service teachers are encouraged to develop a Professional Reflective Journal which they use to record their experiences and keep samples of good practice observed in schools. They are expected to regularly review the content of this journal and add commentary to reflect on the development of their understandings of the work of a teacher. The portfolio can also be used to record a description of challenging problems witnessed or personally experienced in a school setting. Whilst such accounts need to adhere strictly to privacy obligations, the real value comes with the pre-service teacher’s reflections on the nature of the problem and how it was dealt with by school staff. 

5. Develop an appreciation of reflective practices

It is important that pre-service have an appreciation of reflective practices. In Preparing for the Teaching Profession, we introduce the Gibbs Reflective Cycle. Such a practice can enhance problem-solving if it is frequently used within the teaching of a lesson and afterwards when the pre-service teacher is reflecting on the success of a lesson.

Michael Kavanagh and Mary Kavanagh are the authors of  Preparing for the Teaching Profession and contributors to our white paper
The Australian student voice on the soft skills needed for the future.

Mary Kavanagh has extensive primary classroom teaching experience. Mary has been involved in the induction of early career teachers for over 20 years in a variety of school settings.

Dr Michael Kavanagh is an Academic Adviser (Primary and Secondary) to the Deakin University Internship Program for the Master of Teaching Degree.

Learn more about Preparing for the Teaching Profession.

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