Problem Solving

Problem solving involves the abilities to plan, strategize, and implement complex tasks.

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From building a seafaring boat to completing a 50-mile canoe trip through the wilderness, out-of-school programs can provide rich opportunities for youth to learn and develop problem solving skills. They require learning to plan, strategize, manage uncertainty, and modify designs when a new challenge or problem stands in the way of youth achieving their goal. Youth walk away not only able to tackle problems they faced in the programs, but use the skills they learned to apply to situations they encounter in their daily lives.

Real-world problem-solving skills are vital for completing important life tasks, and being able to adapt to life changes—both in work and life. But these skills can be difficult to learn and not easily taught in a traditional classroom context. They are skills for navigating the complex, knotty, and sometimes seemingly illogical challenges that surface in pursuing real-world goals, such as dealing with uncertainty and unexpected events. If youth are trying to reach a goal that requires working with people or institutions, the challenges may include figuring out implicit rules, dealing with adults who may appear to have inconsistent rules and behaviors, or trying to communicate with two groups of people with divergent values and ways of thinking. These kinds of everyday complexities can easily leave teens or adults feeling powerless and confused.

In effective out-of-school programs, youth learn to navigate progressively harder real-world challenges under the guidance of experienced staff and peers. Often, youth begin by learning some of the task-specific knowledge and skills (e.g., vocal projection, knot-tying, speech-writing) needed for the type of projects they will work on later. As they start doing projects, they begin learning the process of real-world goal pursuits: planning, anticipating things that can go wrong, learning how to talk with the different groups of people they need to work with (e.g., school officials, police, children), learning to ask questions, and learning to develop and implement backup plans. They learn that it is normal to have to practice new skills repeatedly until mastery is achieved.

As youth experience repeated opportunities to solve real-world challenges, they begin identifying patterns in what works and why.

Out-of-school programs are good contexts to learn these problem-solving skills because they provide many opportunities for youth to refine their skills through reflection, not only on their own experiences but on the collective experiences of many group members, current and past.

Key Youth Experiences

Staff Practices

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