How do we produce a generation of problem-solvers?

Written by: Charles Leadbeater | Published:
Image: iStock

A new report looks at educators who are successfully preparing students for a volatile world driven by innovation and entrepreneurship. Its author Charles Leadbeater discusses his findings

Schooling is a systematic way to instruct young people so they are good at following instructions: to do what is required, in the right way, at the right time.

Yet in a more volatile, uncertain world, driven by innovation and entrepreneurship, we need to equip young people to find, frame and solve problems of all shapes and sizes, especially problems that do not come with instructions.

The world no longer rewards people simply for what they know, nor because they have good qualifications. What matters is what you can do with what you know, working with others to solve often tricky problems.

Problem-solving requires knowledge, but it takes far more than being smart. Nor can all the skills involved be taught in a traditional way by a teacher. Problem-solving, which invariably involves rapid learning with other people, is difficult to pick up if you are stuck at a computer completing multiple-choice tests.

The shift from “following instructions” to “solving problems” will require a much more comprehensive change in what students learn and how, one that needs to be structured, systematic and well-evidenced while also creative, exploratory and open-ended. It is a tall order and one that teachers, students, schools and entire systems around the world are starting to tackle.

In the process, education needs to become a dynamic activity, providing a combination of four ingredients:

  • Knowledge, starting with the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, moving onto knowledge of core content and then to higher order concepts and thinking skills, to challenge, question, adapt and apply knowledge in new ways.
  • Personal strengths and character development, including helping students find a sense of purpose and ambition, and building their resilience and persistence (knowing how to stick with it and overcome setbacks and obstacles).
  • Social experiences so they deepen their relationships with others, learn and think through dialogue and collaboration, and take action together to make and do things for and with other people.
  • Activities that give students a strong sense of agency, so that they learn how to turn knowledge and ideas into action to see that they can make a difference to the world so they can serve and contribute.

Each ingredient matters, in its own right. Yet it is their dynamic combination that brings them to life. They become really powerful when young people learn to deploy them together. Good schools and skilled teachers know how to create these dynamic learning experiences.

To develop young people as creative problem-solvers, education can no longer afford to rely so heavily on learning by routine to hit exam targets. Education needs to take young people wider, deeper and further, to give them experiences of what it is like to take action, to make things, to serve the community, to work with others and to take on challenges that might once have daunted them.

Learning to be a creative problem-solver involves knowing when to follow instructions and when to depart from them. It requires sound basic skills but also the ability to engage in higher order critical and creative thinking, to find connections and combinations between ideas and concepts to unlock problems.

Problem-solving of this kind is rarely just about being smart. It requires persistence to overcome setbacks; a sense of animating purpose to drive you on; collaboration to engage the ideas and insights of other people; empathy to understand the needs of others; the ability to turn ideas into action, to test and improve them. Learning to be a creative problem-solver requires a dynamic combination of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, hard and soft, explicit and tacit, academic knowledge and entrepreneurial ambition.

Schools that achieve that mix are dynamic places to learn. That is because these schools do not fall prey to false dichotomies that divide the head and the hand, theory and action, the personal and the social, digital and real-world learning. On the contrary they create new combinations of ingredients often thought to be at odds. That is why they provide a dynamic education.

All over the world, educators and education systems are taking steps to make education more dynamic. New curricula are being developed to develop these capabilities alongside basic skills and content knowledge.

Schools are developing more effective methods of teaching and learning, which are rigorous and yet creative. New models of school, often involving project-based and real-world learning, are being created, inside and outside public education systems.
These developments are endorsed not just by students and teachers but also by a growing band of employers, policy-makers and academics. There is a growing global movement that wants to change education from within.

The biggest obstacle to the spread of dynamic learning is the bottleneck of the assessment system. The growing consensus that collaborative, creative and personal skills matter hugely to student success, is belied by the way that education systems test individual, cognitive ability.

A move towards dynamic assessment systems will involve both formal testing and lots of informal peer-to-peer and self-assessment; dynamic assessment systems will have ceilings that rise and expand as student performance improves; they will go far beyond testing routine recall of facts to test higher order thinking, problem-solving and creativity; they will deliver test results and grades but also qualitative descriptions and expert judgements of how well a student performs.

Assessment should be designed to help students acquire skills they need to succeed. Too often it is the other way round: the students need to acquire the testable knowledge that assessment systems mandate.

What is at stake in the debate over the future of learning is not whether school systems rise or fall in the PISA rankings. It is about how well education prepares young people to flourish in a society awash with intelligent technology, facing an uncertain future, with endless opportunities for collaboration but also deep-seated and urgent challenges which need addressing.

We need to learn how to become more human even as society becomes more technological, to become more creative as work becomes more programmed, to be more empathetic as systems become more pervasive, to take the initiative rather than meekly follow instructions, to work together rather than go it alone.

We are not robots. We need to excel at being human. That is why we need our education systems to become more dynamic to allow more students to develop the basic human capacities to care, empathise and to create. Those three – to care about what happens in the world, to empathise with other people, to create new solutions – will provide knowledge with its purpose. That is why we need our schools and education systems to become dynamic places to learn.

  • Charles Leadbeater has worked as a senior advisor to government and is an expert on innovation and creativity.

Further information

The Problem Solvers is published by Pearson as a part of their Open Ideas series focused on the big unanswered questions in education. To download the report, visit


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