Problem Solving as a Matter of Survival

What is most important for schools to focus on? Well, it sounds rather dramatic, but giving kids lots of experience in problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity could actually save lives, or at least make them much more comfortable.

In the last month or two, Vermont and many other parts of the Northeast have been hit with two widespread storms. Many households were without electricity for more than a day--some even without electricity for a week. So, how do you deal with that? Do you have flush toilets that no longer flush? A tap that no longer delivers water? A radiator that no longer throws heat and a fridge that lets the lettuce rot? Can you drive to your workplace or get the kids to school? Or are there trees and powerlines down, roads washed away?
If your regular lifestyle is interrupted, what do you do? Especially if the power and Internet are down and you can't Google your way to "how to" survive!

Since moving further from a sustainable and independent lifestyle, our culture on the whole has lost a lot of practical knowledge as it applies to living well without electricity. We have become specialized in our knowledge and abilities--maybe I know how to teach but do not how to change the oil or air filter in my car. Maybe my neighbor knows programming but can't understand basic kitchen chemistry well enough to bake a loaf of bread. Most of us have become accustomed to paying someone else to do specific, discrete tasks for us. But that is not possible in a situation where travel and power are limited.

One exercise you can give your class is to go without electricity in their homes for an hour and see what it's like. Were there activities they tried to do out of habit? Another is to ask what kind of food could they prepare without power? This might be a great segue into solar cookers or looking at different fuels. It can definitely prompt a conversation of "What do we use electricity for?"
Another exercise might be looking at the waterways, roads, and bridges in the area and mapping alternative routes, should one way be closed or washed out. There are many challenges that are fun and provocative available on the Internet or in books which emphasize problem-solving in a group situation.

Exercises such as these stimulate the brain into thinking outside the box... If one way is shut down or not possible, what other way can we try? If we don't have a certain ingredient, material, or tool, what can we substitute? This kind of thinking is also, unfortunately, not the kind of thing that is easily tested for. Or rather, it doesn't seem to be the sort of thing that is tested at this point. And with such great pressure on teachers, it can be hard to work challenges into an already tightly packed curriculum.

But when we teach students how to do things differently--how to make do or invent or improvise--we give them the skills necessary in times of challenge. These skills and habits of mind are just the kind of resourcefulness that can make a huge difference in the face of arduous times. These are the skills that allow someone to know where to go to find answers, and just as importantly, what questions to ask.

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