This article looks at problem-solving activities and what they are like. It covers how to set them up, why it's good to use them, the disadvantages and what you should do after the activity.
Students need a reason to speak in the classroom. Many speaking activities seem to have no aim other than to get students to talk to each other, but for what reason? By doing the activity what will they achieve? Some activities, like pairwork activities, try to create a purpose by creating an information gap - i.e. where one student has some of the information and another student the rest and, only by speaking to each other can they complete the task. However, this simple transference of information only replicates a small part of what speaking in real life is used for.
Role-plays are another favourite classroom activity designed to get students speaking, but these often focus on creating scenarios or situations where students practise functional language such as giving directions, asking for information, etc. Although this is realistic, it is still often on a level of one student having information that another student doesn't. In real life, we often speak about something when we both, or all, share a lot of the same information. This can take the form of a discussion or a debate where we have opinions, but it can also take the shape of a discussion based on having to solve a problem. In this article, we'll take a closer look at problem-solving speaking activities.
What are problem-solving activities like?
There are a number of types of problem solving activities. For the sake of simplicity I'll split them into three types:
1. The opinion problem-solving activity.
In this type of activity students are given information to discuss where there is not necessarily one right or wrong answer. This type of activity differs from a normal discussion in that there is a built-in problem within the information.
You and three friends rowed out to a small island in the middle of a lake. When you landed you forgot to tie the boat up properly and it has drifted away. Night is now approaching. It is 3km back to the shore, but one of your friends can't swim. You do not have any food with you and you don't know if anyone knows where you are. What do you do?
Students are then expected to discuss the problem and come up with a solution. To help students you can provide a set of ideas/options for them to choose from. You can also make the activity more complicated by giving each student a 'role card' with an extra piece of information on it (that might be a problem) i.e.
There is no wood on the island so you can't build a fire. At night the temperature drops to freezing.
2. The logical thinking problem-solving activity.
In this type of problem-solving activity there is usually one correct solution. To arrive at the solution the students need to discuss information they are given and logically work out what the solution is. There are two ways in which the information can be given, either split between a number of students so that they don't have the same information and they must share it, or where they all have the same information and simply have to discuss things together. In the later version a set of questions can often help students work out the answer. (See activity 2 in the 'Practical ideas' section below for a logical thinking activity).
3.The information gap problem-solving activity.
How does this differ from a normal information gap (i.e. a pairwork information gap where one student has information that the other student doesn't)? Well, the main difference is that in a normal information gap activity it is simply a matter of transferring the information, i.e. two students have a profile of a person. Student A knows the person's age and nationality, etc. Student B then asks 'How old is he?' and fills in the missing information they obtain in the correct space, etc. In a problem-solving information gap, getting the missing information is not the ultimate aim, but merely a stepping stone on the way to solving a problem.
Why use problem-solving activities?
Apart from the fact that these kinds of activities can be a lot of fun they are also very stimulating. They usually require students to communicate information to each other where the focus is on expressing ideas and opinions and not simply repeating phrases. In many ways, problem-solving activities replicate 'real' speaking in that people have a need to speak. Problem-solving activities can also be an effective way of practising language items that have been taught, i.e. both grammar and vocabulary. They are also a great way of developing students' cognitive abilities helping them to process language in a meaningful way.
Are there any disadvantages to problem-solving activities?
Yes, there are. One of the major problems is that stronger students often dominate the discussions, taking over and giving the less able students little opportunity to contribute. Often, this is due to the need for one person to organize and collate information and ideas. One way around this is to give certain students specific tasks, i.e. someone to 'chair' the discussion, someone to make sure everyone has a turn, etc.
Another disadvantage of this type of activity is that students may become frustrated when trying to solve the problem and, especially if they don't have the language skills in English, will switch to their L1. To avoid this it is important that you, the teacher, consider what language they are likely to need in order to complete the task and to pre-teach any necessary phrases, expressions or vocabulary you think they do not possess. Remember, using a problem-solving activity is not the main focus of your lesson/teaching but simply a way in providing students with a forum for using the language they have learnt.
How do you set up a problem-solving activity?
As with other speaking activities, how you set up the activity will often be the difference between a successful activity and one that doesn't work. The first thing to consider is whether the activity uses the language you want the students to practise. If not, then ask yourself why exactly you are using it. Then, it is important to look at the language that is needed and make sure that you pre-teach any new language before they start the activity. This will help the activity run smoothly with the focus being on solving the problem rather than working out the meaning of any new language. Finally, think about whether you want students to work alone to begin with and then discuss the problem with other students or whether you will start with pair or groupwork. Whenever you decide to use pair or groupwork think about who you get to work together so that there is a balance in each group.
What should I do after the activity?
Just as with roleplays, don't just move onto a different activity. If you move on immediately after the activity and don't at least discuss what happened, then students will often lose interest in problem-solving activities, or at least won't benefit to the full. There needs to be an obvious outcome and a rounding-up of the activity. Opening up the activity to a class discussion where you compare solutions is an obvious follow-up. It is also important that during the activity you note down any mistakes students made with the language and think about how you will tackle these either after the activity or in a subsequent lesson.
Some practical ideas
An opinion problem-solving activity
Here I am going to use the idea I mentioned earlier but give a few variations to show how it can be run in a number of different ways.
Put students in groups of 3-5 and give each group a copy (or copies) of the following handout:
Ask students to talk to each other and make a list of possible solutions. Ask them to also think about what problems they might face/encounter with each solution. i.e. If they stay on the island, where will they sleep and what will they eat? What if there is no food on the island? etc.
Give the students the same handout, but also give them the following options (either as part of the handout or written on the board).
- One of you swims to the shore to get help.
- Try and make a fire on the island to attract attention.
- Find somewhere to sleep for the night and then try and get off in the morning.
- Look for the boat and get one person to try and swim to it and bring it back.
- All swim back to the shore taking it in turns to help the person who can't swim.
Give the students the same handout, but also give each one a role card with extra information. i.e.
A logical thinking problem-solving activity
A new teacher starts working at school. In her class there are a set of triplets, Ana, Bryan and Carl. Unfortunately, the teacher can't remember which one is which, but she has some notes about the three kids.
- She knows that two of the triplets are boys and one is a girl.
- Carl, one of the boys, is always calm and patient.
- One of the triplets likes playing football and he has a tattoo on his arm.
- One of the triplets has red hair, one brown and one blonde.
- The triplet who doesn't get angry easily has short blonde hair.
- The triplet with red hair has an earring and she likes to sing.
- The triplet who has a tattoo gets angry easily.
Can she work out who is who?
Students should be able to work out the answer simply with the information provided, but, if you want to help them you could also give them a set of questions to answer. e.g.
- Should the teacher have known which triplet was Ana? Why?
- Which triplet likes to sing? How do you know?
- What colour is Ana's hair?
- What else do you know about Ana?
- What kind of person is Carl?
- Does he have a tattoo?
- How do you know?
- What colour is Carl's hair?
- Does Carl like football?
- Which triplet likes football?
These questions guide students through step-by-step, enabling them to work out the answer.
An information gap problem-solving activity
A simple example of this would be to use the same worksheet as above but cut the information about the triplets into strips, put students in small groups and give each student one or two strips. Tell students they have the information between them but that they must not show their information to the other students in their group.
A new teacher starts working at school. In her class there are a set of triplets, Ana, Bryan and Carl. Unfortunately, the teacher can’t remember which one is which, but she has some notes about the three kids. Can she work out who is who?
She knows that two of the triplets are boys and one is a girl.
Carl, one of the boys, is always calm and patient.
One of the triplets likes playing football and he has a tattoo on his arm
One of the triplets has red hair, one brown and one blonde.
The triplet who doesn’t get angry easily has short blonde hair.
The triplet with red hair has an earring and she likes to sing.
The triplet who has a tattoo gets angry easily.
Speaking skills: Speaking matters
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Speaking matters: Problem-solving