Problem Solving As an Essential Life Skill (Or, How I Conquered College Calculus)

PROBLEM SOLVING:

The ability to conceptualize the “big picture,” examine the various pieces of a challenge or a problem, and develop a process to utilize relevant and available resources to reach workable solutions within a given situation or context.

– One of 16 “Habits of the Mind” Providence School seeks to develop in our graduates

Calculus was a challenging subject for me–both times I took it; once during high school, and again during my freshman year in college. You may be thinking, ”Wait a minute, Soo. You’re an Asian American! Aren’t you born with superior math genes?” Oh, how I wish that that particular stereotype—that Asians are born math geniuses—were true! It would have made my life so much more enjoyable during high school and during college.

One would think things get easier the second time around, but that rule of thumb didn’t seem to apply to calculus, at least not for me. I recall staying up many nights just to finish my homework, never mind mastering the concepts. Sometimes, a single problem would require hours of laborious struggle. I cannot say I mastered calculus, but I did learn that solving problems, including mathematical ones, requires grit, determination, and hard work.

I didn’t quite get it at the time, but I later realized my calculus teacher’s plan was not only to teach me mathematical concepts, but to impart the more important life lesson of working through a problem and not giving up on it until it gets solved. He was teaching us to be gritty. To stick to something, no matter how challenging it may be. Our calculus teacher would often remind the class that he wished to equip future problem solvers. Most of us weren’t buying the grander vision he was promoting, but in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense now, since most of my working hours as a school administrator seem to be spent in problem-solving mode.

 

Life itself presents a variety of problems we must learn to face 

It’s not just in our school days or working career that we encounter problems in need of solutions. Life itself requires the ability to face a variety of different kinds of problems and to stick with the search for solutions. My calculus teacher called the required resolve “stick-to-it-iveness.” Sometimes the problems we have to face are simple and straightforward. But at other times, they are complex and challenging. We need to be prepared to activate our “stick-to-it-ive” problem solving mindset, and there’s no better time to train that mindset than while in school. 

Our own set of problems may pale in comparison to the daily challenges faced by many of our global leaders today. President Zelensky of Ukraine comes to mind; he’s in my daily prayers, as he may well be in yours. Though our own realities—in life, at school, at work, or at home—may not be as daunting nor as complex as those our global leaders face, we are still called to face our own personal problems and challenges, big or small, by doing our very best to problem solve with grit and determination, while seeking God’s help.

How are we instilling a problem-solving mindset in our students? 

Our Preschool children learn to solve problems by mastering the concepts of “give and take” (we adults call it “negotiate”). On the playground and in the classroom, under the careful, loving guidance of teachers and staff, our youngest children learn to problem solve in a variety of contexts. For example, a young child vying to enjoy a toy during playtime—especially if that toy happens to be in someone else’s hand—begins to learn to solve the problem presented when demand is greater than supply by learning to wait for the other child to finish with the toy. The young child is learning valuable problem-solving skills of practicing patience, understanding the principle of delayed gratification, and implementing the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12)—worked out in a real-life situation. 

From playtime to “HOPS” to supernatural enablement 

As our children transition from their Lower School years to their teen years in Middle School and Upper School, they encounter problems that are more complex than sharing toys or playing fair at recess. The increasingly complex problems must be solved by learning to hone and apply their Higher Order Problem Solving skills (‘HOPS”, as opposed to “HOTS”–Higher Order Thinking Skills). At this stage in the development, the challenges and problems life may send their way cannot be solved through their own (limited) human efforts alone. As most adults know from experience, the older we get, the more challenging life seems to become. And that’s for good reason: God wants us to mature in our character and in our virtues. In essence, our maturing young adults will need to begin to grapple with the reality that in addition to human effort, divine wisdom and enablement is an absolute “must have” when it comes to tackling their academic, social, and relational challenges. (Not that we don’t begin teaching this principle to younger children. Reliance on God is always a habit we cultivate.)

Solomonic wisdom needed

When David’s son, King Solomon, was but a young child, he asked God to grant him one wish: to be a wise king. He asked for wisdom because he wanted to rule the nation of Israel with a “discerning heart and with the ability to distinguish between right and wrong” (1 Kings 3:1-15). God was pleased with this request and answered his prayer. Solomon’s wisdom was promptly tested when he had to resolve a very dicey problem that involved two young mothers who came to him with conflicting claims. Each of them claimed a nursing infant belonged to them, and King Solomon had to solve the problem: Which of the two women is the true mother of the young infant? (You can read more about it, and how he ultimately solved the problem, in I Kings 3:16-28.)

We may never face the same challenges that King Solomon faced, but the same divine wisdom he needed to be an effective ruler and leader will be required of us, and of our children as well, if we want to have a positive impact on our communities. The ability to distinguish right from wrong, wisdom from folly, and truth from falsehood, is a problem-solving skill set that only comes with spiritual discernment and wisdom—which are gifts from God. 

Briefly stated, our goal is to teach, equip, and launch future leaders who will emerge from our classrooms, and from our homes, with Solomonic wisdom. Our noble aim as a distinctly Christian school is to raise young men and women who are ready to be deployed into a setting often devoid of a moral compass. They will be thrust into cultural settings that are in conflict with producing human flourishing.

Unfortunately, peace, justice, hope, and compassion—the quintessential cultural norms that historically characterized periods of human flourishing—appear to be on the downtrend. So, where do we go from here? 

The world needs wise and competent problem solvers

Our mission is to help raise our young men and women to become like Solomon and like the Old Testament character of Daniel. We pray our graduates will be young men and women who have the problem-solving skills that Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah seemed to possess early in their youth. Like the Hebrew teens who were plucked away from their homes and from their country as slaves and were thrust into an impossible situation as students at the “University of Babylon” (Daniel 1:1-12), our college-bound students will face similar challenges to their faith and personal convictions. They need to be equally prepared to face those challenges by having learned to problem solve through being equipped “to conceptualize the ‘big picture’ and develop God-ordained, workable solutions and plans for their given situation or context.” 

Becoming an effective and skillful problem solver, like Daniel & Co., requires more than just our own limited will power, grit, or determination. Calculus problems can be solved with determination and hard work—and the help of a TI-83 Plus graphing calculator. But the type of problems and sheer magnitude of problems we may be called to solve requires utter dependence on God’s supernatural power and wisdom, which exceeds our limited human abilities. (Please don’t misunderstand; a lot, and I mean a lot, can be accomplished by exercising imagination and a strong work ethic, regardless of where one stands in relation to God. But let’s not forget that these natural abilities are themselves a reflection of the Imago Dei in every human person. We need to give credit where credit is due.) 

I am humbly grateful every child at Providence School, where I serve as head of school, is intentionally introduced to these profound, transformative concepts, from Preschool through senior year. They are encouraged and equipped to become capable problem solvers who: “Trust in the Lord with all [their] heart and do not lean on [their] own understanding; [and] in all [their] ways submit to him” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Our students are frequently prompted to seek God’s enablement by claiming this promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).


Soo Chang, head of school at Providence School,  began his career in Christian education in 2003 at The Cambridge School of Dallas, serving as admissions director and chaplain. School leadership is his passion and his calling.  Mr. Chang has been the head of three independent Christian schools, with accomplishments in casting fresh vision, developing and mentoring administrative teams, establishing strategic plans, and facilitating the spiritual climate. He earned a B.S. degree in business administration and finance (requiring taking calculus) from USC and a M.Div. degree in Christian education from BIOLA University (calculus not required).

 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: