How to Close The Student Achievement Gap: Recommendation #3: Develop Your Critical-Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills

How to Close The Student Achievement Gap: Recommendation #3: Develop Your Critical-Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills


Most schools—especially in areas of high ethnic and economic diversity—have concerns over “student achievement gaps,” academic-success differences related to demographics. This post series looks at ideas for remedying the problem.

Since student achievement gaps involve a variety of social and psychological issues, no blog can cover every point unique to your classroom. There will be times you have to work out your own approaches from scratch.

You’ll be best prepared for these times—and best equipped to help students develop their own skills for overcoming opportunity gaps—if you understand critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

The Art of Critical Thinking

You’ve probably guessed that “critical thinking” does not mean skill in blame-casting. Quite the opposite, it starts with learning to look at your own thinking with a critical eye, setting aside assumptions and snap judgments so you can see all facets of a situation (including others’ points of view) with an open mind.

Effective critical thinking is the first step in pinpointing the roots of a problem and seeing options for remedying it. Key skills include:

  • Humility—willingness to admit that what you “know” may not be so, and that there’s no shame in changing your mind
  • Risk-taking—willingness to experiment with new approaches and learn by “failure” when necessary
  • Empathy—ability to see another’s point of view and work toward win-win solutions; also, the ability to “read” others for their unspoken points of concern
  • Analysis—ability to collect information and to evaluate a situation from all sides
  • Creativity and innovation—ability to conceive of and experiment with different ways of doing things

How to Solve a Problem

Of course, understanding a situation is only the first step. More than one problem has remained unsolved because a committee of obsessive critical thinkers got stuck in an analysis loop.

One proven technique for moving from critical thinking to problem-solving action (as outlined by self-help author Dale Carnegie in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living) is to write down brief answers to four questions:

  1. What is the real problem involved here?
  2. What is the actual cause of the problem?
  3. What are all possible solutions?
  4. Which solution will I implement?

Make sure to put it in writing and answer all the questions. Usually, the best solution will make itself clear this way—then, schedule it and do it!

A few more hints for problem-solving:

  • Let everyone feel part of the solution. Seek input from the students and show respect for all ideas, even those that don’t make it into the chosen solution. Give everyone a role in implementing the remedy.
  • Don’t try to analyze and solve the problem in one sitting. It usually takes two or three sittings—at least 24 hours apart—to ensure you see the answers clearly.
  • Accept that your chosen solution may not always “work” exactly as you’d hoped. If the problem remains after a fair trial period, repeat the above steps, making use of all you’ve learned from the first attempt.
  • Believe in yourself and your students. Persistence will find a way!