Developing A Problem-Solving Mindset As An ECT

Pete Foster discusses the journey of new teachers from reliance to independence, highlighting the importance of providing support and a structured framework for their development, and explores the concept of progressive problem-solving as a mindset for continuous improvement in teaching.

How I started to become independent as a new teacher had quite a lot to do with being left alone in the classroom. My mentor, James, would go and get something from the cupboard, briefly at first but later creeping up to ten minutes and much later entire lessons. I would white-knuckle it until he returned, waiting for the class to implode, waiting for poor or extreme behaviour this particular Year 8 class had never exhibited before.

From reliance to independence?

As we chart their course from reliance to independence, What do new teachers need? is a question without a single obvious answer. Of course, they need subject knowledge, a good grounding in classroom management and perhaps an understanding of how learning happens. They need time in the classroom, inhabiting that new-found independence. More than all this, they need a structure or scaffold that supports their development step by step.

Debates rage as to how directive parts of that structure should be. Instructional coaching has become ubiquitous but so have its competing definitions. Directive or not? Dialogic or not? Clear action step or general direction?

It seems obvious – to me at least – that we owe it to new teachers to be direct about what is important to get right in the classroom. If a new teacher is struggling and we have a potential solution, we help no one by withholding it. Less obvious are the ways we hand over responsibility to the new teacher.

As teachers, were trying to make our role redundant. Were working to untether students, to wean them off support as theyre problem-solving, essay writing, designing or anything else. Its not easy to reach these levels of independence. And, counterintuitively, independence is not effectively fostered by just setting lots of open-ended, independent tasks and letting students get on with it.

Whilst the route for students from reliance to independence is, if not easy, relatively clear, the same cant be said for new teachers. Of course, a new teacher is a novice teacher. But they are also a graduate. Often, they arrive in teaching with experience supplementing and enriching their first steps in the classroom.

Easier, for what?

Intuitively, we know what new teachers need. Expertise appears to build its foundation on:

  • Large quantities of knowledge: subject, pedagogy, behaviour policy, our students.
  • Process embedded in long-term memory: classroom routines, explanations, questioning techniques.

Constraints on mental capacity lessen as we embed more knowledge and process. Unconstrained mental capacity allows us to embed more knowledge or new process.

If that all feels a little abstract, weve all experienced the process described. We arrive in a new school and everything from student names to behaviour policy to unfamiliar topics challenges us. Knowledge in one of those areas enables progress in another. We learn names and managing behaviour becomes easier. As knowledge of a topic grows, our explanations become clearer. Teaching becomes easier.

But what are we freeing up that mental capacity for? Teaching is easier? Great. What now? Weve lessened the demands on our mental capacity but what is expected when those demands are lessened? Some experts on expertise may have the answer.

Problem Reduction?

Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia present one useful way of conceptualising this moment, the moment when we have reached enough automation, and enough knowledge to free ourselves from some of the demands of human cognitive architecture. Imagine this moment as a fork in the many paths of teacher development.

One fork in the path leads us to Problem Reduction:

  • We’ve solved some of the problems we’ve been facing and because of this…
  • Teaching becomes less challenging.
  • Tasks that took a long time before take less time now.

Maybe weve grappled with a marking policy until weve found the way we can follow it quickly and efficiently. Maybe we can use the behaviour policy to remove a disruptive student and its transformed the atmosphere in our classroom. Maybe weve taught ourselves to plan using someone elses resources and were saving so much time.

Of course, these are all good things. A problem with our fork-in-the-road metaphor is that its fine to rest in this state for a time. Talking one path doesnt close the other off to us forever. But its unlikely well continue to develop if all we do is reduce our problems. Whilst getting easier is probably a prerequisite for getting better, our teaching isnt necessarily getting better as its getting easier.

Or Problem Seeking?

The other fork leads us to Problem Seeking. Now, problems dont exist in your classroom because youre a bad teacher. The classroom is a complex environment and in its very nature, it offers us problems to solve.

In Surpassing Ourselves, Bereiter and Scardamalia describe how as mental constraints are reduced we can pay attention to other aspects of the problem that previously had to be ignored.They use the metaphor of reinvestment because we can reinvest energy and effort that previously had to be paid elsewhere.

As we develop, we look out for new problems or more complex versions of existing problems. We shouldnt feel guilty that not everything is perfect in our classroom. But we can look out for ways to continue to solve the problems posed by the classroom.

Entry routines to the classroom have been practised and practised until weve reached a level of order we never thought possible. Now we notice that students do come in well but they dont start the first task well. We reinvest our attention in their apathy. Or recent energy has been devoted to learning enough about this terms history topic to explain it. Now that knowledge has improved, we can start to consider how to lead effective class discussions, asking the right questions, on that topic.

Bereiter and Scardamalia call this Progressive Problem Solving because we are constantly on the look out for the next problem to solve. That may sound exhausting but this should be an attitude or perspective rather than a constant frenzy.

Progressive Problem Solving for Novice Teachers

To develop a Progressive Problem-Solving mindset, new teachers can ask the following questions:

  • What are the most significant problems I’m facing right now? These will be the problems that are most getting in the way of your success. What are the key problems getting in the way of learning right now? Often this is the behaviour of the students or their attitudes.
  • How can I break this problem down further? At times, problems like Behaviour loom, making it hard to define what kind of solution we’re looking for. We’re not usually looking for a solution to Behaviour or Planning or Marking. We want students to listen when we’re talking. We want to plan in a way that encourages student memory. We want to give feedback without taking too much time. Seek to specify, narrow down and define.
  • Are there any clear solutions? Sometimes we just need to do that thing we’ve been meaning to do. Sometimes a bit of reading or a quick chat can define a solution quickly.
  • Where can I go for support? Often, but not always, this is the mentor. It might be the teacher who knows part of the curriculum really well. It might be the teacher who taught the students you’re struggling with previously.
  • What do I need to do first? Once the problem is clear, once support has been sought, first steps can be defined. We trail solutions, searching for one that does what we need it to. Behaviour gets better. Planning becomes more straightforward. Feedback is high impact and low workload.

Viewing your own development through the lens of Progressive Problem Solving is useful because it encourages ownership of the problems you face. Anytime youre directed to practise and embed a behaviour in a coaching or training session, youre being offered a way to reduce the constraints on mental capacity further. Youre being offered a tool to solve future problems.

When we just focus on the granular – practising that narrow next step – we can miss the big picture. Our eyes are on the moment so we lose the horizon. Whenever we can, we should look up and, perhaps with the help of others, take a broader view of our development. We should consider how these small steps build into something larger: a set of solutions to the infinite and varied problems of the classroom.

You can read more articles by Pete Foster here.


Pete Foster is an English teacher and Assistant Headteacher for Teaching and Learning at an all-through school in Somerset.

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