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What I Learned About Creative Problem Solving from a High School Sophomore

For the past 12 days, I’ve been at our summer condo by beautiful
Gull Lake, near Nisswa, MN. It’s always a learning experience for this
granddad. My teachers are my two grandsons and granddaughter. I’ve had a
number of lessons this summer, the most important being how to learn
creative problem solving from a 15 year-old.

Evan, who merits my blogging a strangely diverse set of topics (lying, civil action, laptops as serialized interruption, American mythology,
etc.) detailed with (amusing) frustration his honors class in Algebra
II. First, a bit of context: Though an avid reader and superb scholar,
my grandson Evan is not a nerd, his parents are not helicopter parents,
he has a passel of friends, and he’s nuts about ski-boarding [32 days
this past winter], golf, skateboarding, his kid-brother (a real piece of
work) and investing.  He attends one of the top prep schools in
Massachusetts, a school that emphasizes not only academics, but also
leadership and social justice.

The algebra class took up 2/3 of the year.  His teacher like all of
his teachers is “awesome.” This teacher made a pot of money on Wall
Street and turned to education in his retirement years. (He also advises
students on investment strategy. Intriguing . . .) Evan and his
classmates took about 10 or 12 tests over the two semesters. The tests
were typically 5 or 6 questions, each very complex, demanding and time
consuming. The first 5 questions covered material from the class and the
6th was always about material the students had not discussed in class
nor covered in the syllabus or book.

Evan tells me that you try to figure it out for yourself, based on
prior learning. He assumed that his familiarity with all previous
material would make it possible to be figured out. Typically, he said,
you look for patterns. The sixth question was “really, really hard.”
Over time, they began to think like the teacher, using his mental
techniques for solutions. Of course, they put their assumptions and
conclusions on paper, getting partial credit for their thinking. But at
the end of the semester, no one had gotten more than half of those
questions correct.

Evan received his lowest grade in that class, a B+, but since it was
honors, the grade was figured in as an A-. Neither he nor his classmates
is shy, so on several occasions they went to their teacher and
complained of the process and the lack of preparation for that last
question on each test.

The message from their teacher was four simple words: “Get used to it.”
On several occasions he explained to the students that when he was in
college he had to teach himself a lot. And when he went to Wall Street,
he also had to teach himself a lot.

More significantly, the teacher said, the world is like that. You
won’t always have a teacher around. The problem may be nearly
insurmountable. And you’ll have to use every resource imaginable to
solve problems. And . . . some problems won’t be solvable.

Evan told me that he strongly disliked the results at the time. But
since he’d had a couple months to think about it, he decided that he
learned an awful lot. He thought that the lessons were very valuable,
but that “he should have gotten a higher grade.” Ha!

We talked over the lessons learned from his experience.

  1. Expect that you will inevitably face difficult, even insurmountable problems in life and work.
  2. Resolution will require every possible resource from the past,
    including techniques and thinking that you’ve never used before.
  3. Joint problem solving offers keys that are unavailable to the individual. Collaboration is a must for success.
  4. Part of your responsibility as an adult is to take on very difficult problems.
  5. “Get used to it.” Reality presents us with complex,
    difficult problems, and may not readily—sometimes never—bend to
    our desires or hopes.

We now know that the teen-aged brain develops the executive functions
between 13 and 18 years of age. As the prefrontal cortex matures,
teenagers learn to reason better, develop more control over impulses and
make better judgments. Intriguingly, this part of the teenage brain has
been dubbed “the area of sober second thought.” It strikes me that
Evan’s math teacher was approaching brain growth in brilliant fashion
and with exact timing, forcing his students to reason about the
difficulties of problem solving and adult reality.  He was also forcing
the students to develop neuronic patterns in their gray matter, patterns
that would be functional over their lifetime.

The research also shows that adolescence is a supremely important
time to learn to deal constructively and innovatively with reality. It
leads me to think that a major reason that many have great difficulty
with adaptability, innovation and creativity is at least partially
because few experienced opportunities like Evan. Just yesterday, a Gen-Y
acquaintance called me with a very difficult problem he faced on a
small professional board of musical leaders. Although we talked for more
than a half-hour, it was rather clear that he had a great deal of
difficulty dealing with the realities of the group. He seemed unable to
understand a basic fact: The world is not a just place.

Failure to learn about complexity and social and physical reality has
two big negative effects. First, it hinders our ability to learn from
all situations, including those whom we don’t like or respect. Second,
it anesthetizes us to the need to be proactive in building the kind of
thinking skills and intelligence network that are of ultimate value.

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