At Rowntree Montessori Schools, we believe that creative thinking and critical thinking skills are essential components of problem solving, which is an important part of the curriculum starting in Pre-Kindergarten Montessori. We understand the importance of not only teaching children about real-world problems, but also of encouraging them and providing them with opportunities to become real-world problem solvers. In addition to the daily and weekly curriculum, we also present all of our students with a monthly STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) challenge which have allowed children in all grades throughout the school to tackle real-world problems such as deforestation, water scarcity, and water pollution. In each class, students are given an overarching problem and a general task to complete. It is then their goal to work together to complete further research and investigate what is already being done in the real world. Continuing to work as a team, they then have to decide on what they are going to design to solve the problem, how they will build the solution, and how it will work once it is complete. As the year progresses, with each new problem, the solutions that each class are challenged with become more complex, and solutions must be more creative, demonstrating their ability to think critically, to demonstrate innovation and to work cooperatively as a team.
Recently our Prep-ONE (SK) students were given a 2-day hands-on challenge, in which the teachers asked them to use classroom materials to come up with a way to help someone who is in need of a rest. After much classroom discussion and brainstorming, the Kindergarten students decided to work as a team to build a table and set of chairs so that a person in need of a rest could sit down on the furniture, built entirely out of straws and connectors.
This challenge gave students the opportunity to showcase their leadership and collaborative skills, as they divided themselves into working groups on their own, with one group of students building chairs and one group building the table. It also offered the teachers the chance to encourage collaboration, as students had to together solve problems that arose while the structures were being built, showcasing teamwork and kindness towards one another. Most importantly, students had the opportunity to practice creative thinking and critical thinking skills.
According to Ellen Booth Church (professor of early childhood education and education consultant for Scholastic) “creative thinking is the ability to look at a problem in many different ways. This might involve seeing a different way to do something, generating new ideas, or using materials in unique ways. She suggests that being a creative thinker at a young age requires a willingness to take risks, to experiment, and even to make mistakes.” We agree that parents and educators should “help children become both fluent and flexible thinkers, where fluent thinking gives students the ability to come up with ideas, and flexible thinking offers the ability to see many possibilities or view objects or situations in new ways.” Teachers and parents can encourage creative thinking by asking young children to respond to questions that have many correct answers, and to then reflect on their answers. For example, a parent can have a discussion about nighttime, and ask his or her child to think of everything that lights up in the night, or all the people who work at night, or all the things they would like to do if they stayed up all night. Finally, and very importantly, the parent should help the child to reflect by asking him or her to comment on specific objects or situations in the room. This is similar to what we do at RMS when we encourage the students to make connections between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world. By providing regular classroom materials in solving open-ended and real-world problems, we encourage creative solutions.
Church defines critical thinking as “the ability to mentally break down a problem or an idea into parts and analyze them. Sorting, classifying, and comparing similarities and differences are all a part of this important skill. Critical thinking can also be called logical thinking.” She suggests that teachers and parents can encourage this type of thinking by helping the child understand that when you break larger problems into smaller parts, they become easier to understand and to solve. For example, at RMS we encourage children to practice critical and logical thinking by asking them open-ended questions, such as “How many ways can you sort these blocks?” “How many different ways can you make a building using these blocks?” “How would the building be different if you used blocks that were all the same size?” Once we help students make the connection that the blocks in the classroom represent building materials in the real world, our students are really diving into more complex problem solving. Recently in our Prep-ONE class, we asked students to make a pencil box out of Lego or use a pizza box, construction paper and masking tape to “deliver” a small ball from a table top to the floor. Such problems, while not overly complex, readily encourage critical thinking as the students break down the component parts of the problem and work out one, and often many more, versions of the solution. The debates over “which solution is best, and why?” are further demonstration of the students’ thinking skills.
It is not only through the STEM approach to learning that students are required to solve real-world problems at RMS. Throughout various subjects, teachers try to incorporate practical hands-on lessons, that are applicable to the real world. For example, in Grade 7, when working with ratios in mathematics, students chose their favourite smoothie recipe and had to scale it up or down in order to serve a given number of people. In Grade 3, while learning about fractions, students recently put their understanding of math and fractions into action by making their own delicious pizzas, and in Grade 4 Social Studies, students recently investigated problems such as the shrinking Arctic, overfishing and urban sprawl, and worked to understand ways in which people can act as good environmental stewards.
By regularly incorporating real-world problems into the curriculum and providing as many opportunities for our children to think creatively and critically when solving these problems, we ensure that we preparing the children of today for the future of tomorrow.