When I visited a fifth-grade class recently, the students were tackling the following problem:

If there are nine people in a room and every person shakes hands exactly once with

each of the other people, how many handshakes will there be? How can you prove your answer is correct using a model or numerical explanation?

There were students on the rug modeling people with Unifix cubes. There were kids at one table vigorously shaking each other’s hand. There were kids at another table writing out a diagram with numbers. At yet another table, students were working on creating a numeric expression. What was common across this class was that all of the students were productively grappling around the problem.

On a different day, I was out at recess with a group of kindergarteners who got into an argument over a vigorous game of tag. Several kids were arguing about who should be “it.” Many of them insisted that they hadn’t been tagged. They all agreed that they had a problem. With the assistance of the teacher they walked through a process of identifying what they knew about the problem and how best to solve it. They grappled with this very real problem to come to a solution that all could agree upon.

Then just last week, I had the pleasure of watching a culminating showcase of learning for our 8th graders. They presented to their families about their project exploring the role that genetics plays in our society. Tackling the problem of how we should or should not regulate gene research and editing in the human population, students explored both the history and scientific concerns about genetics and the ethics of gene editing. Each student developed arguments about how we as a country should proceed in the burgeoning field of human genetics which they took to Capitol Hill to share with legislators. Through the process students read complex text to build their knowledge, identified the underlying issues and questions, and developed unique solutions to this very real problem

Problem-solving is at the heart of each of these scenarios, and an essential set of skills our students need to develop. They need the abilities to think critically and solve challenging problems without a roadmap to solutions. At Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., we have found that one of the most powerful ways to build these skills in students is through the use of a common set of steps for problem-solving. These steps, when used regularly, become a flexible cognitive routine for students to apply to problems across the curriculum and their lives.

The Problem-Solving Routine

At Two Rivers, we use a fairly simple routine for problem solving that has five basic steps. The power of this structure is that it becomes a routine that students are able to use regularly across multiple contexts. The first three steps are implemented before problem-solving. Students use one step during problem-solving. Finally, they finish with a reflective step after problem-solving.

The three steps before problem solving: we call them the K-W-I.

The “K” stands for “know” and requires students to identify what they already know about a problem. The goal in this step of the routine is two-fold. First, the student needs to analyze the problem and identify what is happening within the context of the problem. For example, in the math problem above students identify that they know there are nine people and each person must shake hands with each other person. Second, the student needs to activate their background knowledge about that context or other similar problems. In the case of the handshake problem, students may recognize that this seems like a situation in which they will need to add or multiply.

The “W” stands for “what” a student needs to find out to solve the problem. At this point in the routine the student always must identify the core question that is being asked in a problem or task. However, it may also include other questions that help a student access and understand a problem more deeply. For example, in addition to identifying that they need to determine how many handshakes in the math problem, students may also identify that they need to determine how many handshakes each individual person has or how to organize their work to make sure that they count the handshakes correctly.

The “I” stands for “ideas” and refers to ideas that a student brings to the table to solve a problem effectively. In this portion of the routine, students list the strategies that they will use to solve a problem. In the example from the math class, this step involved all of the different ways that students tackled the problem from Unifix cubes to creating mathematical expressions.

This KWI routine before problem solving sets students up to actively engage in solving problems by ensuring they understand the problem and have some ideas about where to start in solving the problem. Two remaining steps are equally important during and after problem solving.

During Problem-Solving: The Metacognitive Moment

The step that occurs during problem solving is a metacognitive moment. We ask students to deliberately pause in their problem-solving and answer the following questions: “Is the path I’m on to solve the problem working?” and “What might I do to either stay on a productive path or readjust my approach to get on a productive path?” At this point in the process, students may hear from other students that have had a breakthrough or they may go back to their KWI to determine if they need to reconsider what they know about the problem. By naming explicitly to students that part of problem-solving is monitoring our thinking and process, we help them become more thoughtful problem solvers.

After Problem-Solving: Evaluating Solutions

As a final step, after students solve the problem, they evaluate both their solutions and the process that they used to arrive at those solutions. They look back to determine if their solution accurately solved the problem, and when time permits they also consider if their path to a solution was efficient and how it compares to other students’ solutions.

The power of teaching students to use this routine is that they develop a habit of mind to analyze and tackle problems wherever they find them. This empowers students to be the problem solvers that we know they can become.

THIS BLOG WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN EDUCATION WEEK'S NEXT GEN IN ACTION BLOG.