Practical Problem Solving

Practical Problem Solving

Often, problems are knots with many strands and looking at those strands can make
a problem 
seem different.                                               — Fred Rogers

Practical problems have steps somewhat like math problems.  You must define the problem, gather information set a realistic goal and develop plans to reach that goal.

 Emma has a serious problem

Emma had a B average in English until last week. She wasn’t prepared for her English test. She Anxious blond girlhadn’t even read the book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”  and she had missed the three classes when the class discussed the book.

She made wild guesses on the test and ended up with an F, not a high F, but a 17. She couldn’t believe it. She’d always been able to make good guesses and make at least a C. Her average was now 69, a D. If this happened again, she would fail English.

Emma started crying over dinner but refused to tell her parents what had happened. If they knew, they wouldn’t let her go to the party Friday night. Her mother had asked if she had a fight with her boyfriend and Emma nodded. At least they’d be sympathetic about that. They wouldn’t punish her.

Nearly everyone can remember problems of their own. It might have been a fight with a good friend or boyfriend, problems with parents, poor grades, or being picked on at school. It might be something far worse … yes, there are problems worse than failing English. Emma could have been arrested for stealing clothes from a store. She could have a problem with alcohol or drugs. She could be pregnant.

But we’ll stick with the easier problem. She failed an English test and is afraid of failing the class. Now she has made her problem worse by not telling her parents… and letting them believe the problem is something else. What can she do to solve her problems.


Emma must begin with defining the problem.
(That isn’t as easy as you think.)

Emma  thinks that her problem is that she failed an English test.

But Emma is wrong. Failing the test is the situation. There is a difference between a problem and the situation. You can’t change something that has already happened. You should be able to solve a problem.

Emma knows what she wants. She really wants to get her English grade back up to a B but that seems to be impossible.

Before we look for a way for Emma to reach her goal, we need to know why Emma failed that test. So, tell us, Emma, just why weren’t you prepared for that test?

“I just forgot. I missed those classes because I stayed home. I didn’t feel good.”

“No, I wasn’t really sick, I was depressed because my father yelled at me for not dressing properly.”

“Sure, I could have read the book while I was home in bed, but I left it at school in my locker.”

“Sure, I knew there was a test, but I can usually guess and get good grades.”

“Maybe it’s because my classes are way too easy. If I really had to study to make good grades, I’d work harder.”

“Last year, I did work harder, but Middle School was different. No boyfriends… My parents didn’t nag me so much.”

“ALL RIGHT. The main reason I get so upset this year is that my parents keep fighting. They are going to get a divorce and I don’t know what will happen to me. Every time I think about it I feel depressed. I can’t concentrate on studying. I’m not even sure I care about my grades. I just want to cry. I kind of want my parents to see that it’s all their fault… if they stopped talking about a divorce, I’d feel better and work harder at school.  It is THEIR FAULT.

Finally, we are getting closer to the real problem. The fact that Emma’s parents are planning a divorce is still part of the situation. Emma cannot stop the divorce and make her parents’ marriage happy. That is their problem.

A good problem must be something that can be solved.  Emma’s problem is that she needs to accept her situation, set her own goals and work toward them.

The next step: what she wants and how much she wants it

At first, Emma insists she doesn’t want to accept that fact that her parents are getting a divorce. She wants to stay upset. It isn’t right not to be upset.  The only thing Emma wants to change is to  bring that English grade back up to a B.

This isn’t an unusal response.  But she admitted that the reason she didn’t keep up with her work was because she was upset. If she’s serious about bringing up her grades, she needs to deal with her feelings.

Only then can she can set a second goal of  bringing her grade back up again, back to a B.

Emma needs help and information

Emma needs to find someone to talk to.  Most of us cannot go from being depressed about a situation to accepting it and moving on unless we get help. She probably doesn’t need a psychiatrist. She might talk to a school counselor. She might talk to a teacher she trusts. She might talk to a grandparent or other relative she trusts.

To solve the secondary problem, the English grade, she needs to talk to her English teacher, explain her situation, and ask how she can bring her grade back up. Some teachers would let her read the book and re-take the test. Some might suggest ways to earn extra credit.

The Plan and the Solution

Emma decided to talk to her sixth grade teacher, someone she has always liked.  She needs to talk about her parent’s divorce and how upsetting this is. Eventually, she needs to talk to her parents and tell them how she feels and how this is hurting her grades.

Her teacher is a good listener and points out that the divorce is her parent’s problem. Emma isn’t responsible for their problem and she cannot solve it. She doesn’t need to feel guilty or angry or upset. She might even try talking to her parents and assuring them that she will love them both, no matter what they do.

The teacher might set up a time with Emma and her parents and support her as she explains how she has been feeling.

She can can also help Emma express her feelings.  She can say, “Dad, when you and Mom fight like that I feel like crying. Sometimes I feel so bad it makes me feel sick. My stomach hurts.”  Notice she  doesn’t say  her father makes her feel upset. She only describes HOW SHE FEELS. Simply being able to express her feelings instead of keeping them bottled up inside will help solve her problem.

The Secondary Goal and Plan

Emma wants to bring her grade back up to a B for this grading period and then to an A for the rest of the year.

The plan, of course, will depend on the teacher’s cooperation. Some teachers grade strictly by the rules. In this case, Emma needs to know how many tests remain in the grading period. If she makes 100 on one more test, her grade goes from a 69 to an average of 74. A second test with a grade of 100 brings the average up to a 78.  A third grade of 100 would bring her up to an 81.  She might possibly get her grade up to a B, but should fairly easily get it up to a C. Then, with good grades the rest of the year, there should be no problem getting back to a B average.

Most high school teachers, however are more understanding. If a student shows they have changed their study habits and are working very hard, the teacher is likely to help them reach their goal.

College teachers are generally less flexible unless the cause is something more serious, like a death in the family or a medical emergency putting you in the hospital. In either case, you should explain the problem as soon as possible and get permission to take the test a week later. Do NOT take a test, hoping to guess your way through it and expect sympathy when you fail.

Let us assume that Emma’s English teacher is not very sympathetic. She tells Emma that she will give Emma a grade of B- if she writes a five page paper on the book, “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and makes a grade of 95 or higher on the next two tests

When you have the information and think about it, you can set your goal

“I will do it. I’ll have to work harder than I’ve ever worked, but I am going to do it,” Emma says firmly..

So, Emma has the information and set her goal.  But you cannot solve a problem by setting a goal. She might say she will study harder, but that’s too vague. . Emma needs some detailed plans.

Brainstorm possible solutions or strategies

Emma’s first strategy or solution is to learn how to manage her time. She is willing to cut out most of her fun time for the rest of the grading period. Her grades are her top priority. She will:

1. Learn about time management. Schedule two hours a night to study English and time to study other subjects.

2. Read the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” taking notes.

3. Ask other students what they remember about class discussion and questions the teacher asked.

4. Do research on the Internet about the book.

5. Read a book about how to write a good book report. Start with an outline. Based on the outline, write a first draft.
Re-read suggestions for writing a book report and write second draft. Ask 3  students to read it and offer suggestions. Write a final draft and proofread carefully.

6. Go back over earlier tests and study the kinds of questions  asked. List of topics she thinks might be on the next tests. Make flashcards to memorize vocabulary words. Study grammar rules carefully.

7. Keep detailed reading and  class notes and review them regularly.

Choose strategies that will work best

Emma  uses all these strategies and reflects every night on her progress.  Emma is surprised to make 100 on both tests. Her essay is excellent.  Her teacher is impressed and gives her a B.  Emma continues to use her study habits and skills and brings her English grade to an A- by the end of the year. She also improves her grades in other subjects.

Every problem contains within it the seeds of its own solution. If you don’t have any problems, you don’t get any seeds.    — Norman Vincent Peale

Summary of Practical Problem Solving

1. Define the Problem. Know the difference between a problem and the situation.

2. Set your Goal. It must be realistic.

3. Think about what you need to know. Collect information.

4. Use your information to define your goal in more detail.

5. Brainstorm possible strategies.

6. Choose strategies that seem best and make a plan. Create a list of what you need to do each day and check your accomplishments at the end of the day.

 How does this apply to YOU?

You do NOT need to wait until you have a serious problem. If you made a B on the last test and choose to bring it back up to an A, you can use the same procedure.  Know your problem, set a goal, collect information, list strategies, make a plan and follow it.

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