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More Than a Single Answer

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Learning has shifted from solving a problem with a single, definitive answer, to identifying issues in a given situation and offering multiple, possible solutions, according to Nord Anglia Education’s Education Director, Andy Puttock. Testing an accepted belief knowing it can be disproved at any time is the foundation of science and scientific discovery. This process relies on people being curious and exploring deeply by asking challenging, even probing, questions to find answers.

Mr Puttock said that being able to problem-solve in this manner is a quality that students need to have so that they’re ready for the jobs of the future.

“The idea that there is one solution to every problem may work in certain contexts, but it is certainly not the number one skill that our students will need in the 21st century,” he said, “we live in an increasingly complex world.”

While in the workplace we value colleagues who present us with both the problem and the solution – or even a range of possible solutions to problems – Mr Puttock believes that this approach might reinforce traditional or 20th-century ways of learning, which he said students need to move away from.

“We have only just begun to explore the idea of giving students more open-ended problems where the way to the solution is in their own hands, leading to no single right answer,” he said.

As a linguist who taught French in schools for many years, Mr Puttock recalled similar instances from his own experiences. Sometimes, he found himself searching for correct or precise translations to words, only for him to realise later on that the translation to the word or phrase he was working with could change depending on the context.
“Language is often fluid, communicative, context-based and developing,” he said, and this is how he thinks learning should be.

Mr Puttock said that this process might involve failing initially. But, he also emphasised that students eventually reach and achieve better, stronger solutions through teamwork and collaboration. This process, he said, would also motivate them to get creative, re-design and propose a range of viable solutions.

“Much less frequently now do we ‘set’ students problems,” said Mr Puttock.

“Far more often, we see students looking at a situation, identifying what the problems are and finding their own range of solutions. Fully embedded within this process is the belief that occasional failure is to be celebrated and that design-thinking and prototyping will provide a better solution in the end,” he added.

Mr Puttock said that finding “true solutions” to complex problems takes time and resilience, the latter being one of the most sought-after qualities by employers today.

Nevertheless, he maintains that there is still space for teaching single, correct answers to problems so that students can learn the value of accuracy, rigour and structured thinking. But, he said that this needs to be balanced out by allowing students to develop an appetite to take risks and experiment regularly to find answers. These are skills, he said, teachers should encourage students to pick up.

“We want our students to be risk-takers,” said Mr Puttock.

He also stated: “I think it’s worth posing the question: Do we really? Do teachers encourage this? Do we allow the time, provide the support and safety for students to experiment in this way?”

This is because if applied, the outcome is that students leave school with the tools they need to identify real problems, explore and come up with the best solutions. This way, they would be equipped to thrive in the future, long after leaving school.