Teaching Students Problem Solving—The Cycle of Confusion/ Resourcefulness/Confidence

“I am completely lost and do not understand this at all!”

Who among us has not let out this wail when wrestling with computers? We have all been confronted with a seemingly insoluble problem in the operation of a computer. These problems appear unpredictably in different areas—software bugs, network connections, hardware failures, and viruses to name a few. The initial situation appears dire, but over time, individuals find ways to resolve the issues and get back into operation. These methods may include trial and error, consulting friends and vendors, or even looking at the instructions. Confusion, resourcefulness, and confidence all come into play.

Resourcefulness and confidence are important traits that can be learned to develop more proficient problem solving skills. However, since the immediate focus is usually on the content of the problem (Get that computer working!) many people, especially children, are unaware of this cycle role in the problem solving process. These traits can best be discussed when there is no immediate crisis.

Problems, by their very nature, often present ambiguous, frustrating situations. Confusion is a normal reaction and often arises early in the problem solving process. If confusion is unexpected and disorienting, the ability to work on effectively solve the problem diminishes. When people are not comfortable with confusion, emotional flashpoints often erupt.

One way to recognize the negative effects of confusion is by a lack of specificity in the complaint. (“I am completely lost. or “I don’t know anything about this.”)

In teaching problem solving, emphasize that confusion is a natural part of the problem solving process. Plan for it. The first step develop an awareness that being confused is expected and not a big deal. Then, the direction is to accept and become comfortable with the ambiguity of the situation so that the focus can be on working on problem itself. Teach students to recognize the emotional component of confusion, and to take the time to let the emotions settle so that they are able to work at their best ability.

Resourcefulness is the capacity to find new approaches when earlier paths are blocked. The direction is to show the child a way to allow the energy of confusion to be used in an effectively. An excellent first step is to interrupt the reinforcing action of the confusion. The most common method is to take the time to propose alternative ideas.

Typical questions that can help redirect the energy to new options:

“Can the problem be restated in a different way?”

“What do I know about this subject?”

“Who may know more about this than me?”

The questions may only take a few minutes to consider. However, it is also an important step to begin to identify other paths and different ways of seeing the problem. New possibilities for thinking about the problem can open up. The confusion doesn’t necessarily end, but the hold on the mental functions is weakened.

Building Confidence

Use personal examples from their own experience of confusing problems that they resolved. Talk through the steps in detail. Highlight the ways that the options were expanded. Although this approach may appear obvious, children do not always recognize their own process of learning.

Returning to the example with computers: Young people especially have confidence in their computing ability. Often, they have developed more proficiency in computers than their parents. Take a specific example of a problem they have resolved. Explore with them how they felt when the problem surfaced, how their understanding grew, what operating problems they faced, how they overcame them and their increased skill by confronting and solving the problem. This exercise introduces the ideas of confusion, resourcefulness and confidence in a way that they have experienced. They can see this for themselves. As confidence grows, so do the problem solving skills.

Finally, emphasize that the skills are theirs and can be applied to other subjects—like math!

Related articles are: Teaching Problem Solving toStudents–Goals and Strategy
and Teaching Problem Solving to Students–Tools and Resources

Detailed methods are outline in Strategies for Difficult Exams

and  Effective Quantitative Problem Solving Methods


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