Amy Doiron                                                                                                 February 7, 2005

Critical Analysis Paper: Children Solving Problems

            In the text Children Solving Problems, Thornton argues that children learn to problem solve in a social context.  She contends that knowledge is built through diverse experiences, particularly when children work collaboratively with peers or with adults who provide cognitive scaffolding for the child.  In this paper, I will summarize the main aspects of the author’s argument for problem solving in a social context.  This will include a discussion of the most beneficial interactions between collaborators, Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and Jerome and Bruner’s concept of scaffolding.  I will also discuss Wood’s research on levels of support and Rogoff’s research on guided participation, and the implications these studies have for parents and teachers.  I will reflect upon my own experience as a learner, and give examples from my personal experiences.  Finally, I will conclude with the implications I believe Thornton’s text has for my own teaching. 

Thornton advocates the position that problem solving and social interactions are very closely related for children.  She explains that children become successful through experience, building new knowledge on top of old.  She contends that knowledge is cumulative, with each experience preparing the learner for something else; skills from one problem solving experience will allow the child to transfer those ideas and abilities to multiple other contexts.  She argues, “social interactions play a critical role in the child’s progress: skills are transmitted through social interactions, particularly through sharing the process of problem solving with a more skilled adult” (Thornton 124).  Thornton explains that there are certain things we cannot expect children to learn except through social interactions.  This is the only way that children will come to understand the shared assumptions and meanings of our culture, learning what is regarded as a good solution and what is not.  Thus, adults must guide children, providing the opportunity and the guidance to develop new problem solving skills.  By providing this support, the adult helps the child expand what he or she can do, stretching the child toward mastering new things.  These new skills can then be built upon once again, continuing the cycle of cumulative learning. 

Thornton supports these contentions with research.  She discussed the important components for a successful social learning experience between peers by citing Glachan and Light’s study of pairs of children collaborating.  Each child brought a different level of understanding to the problem, along with different strategies, assumptions, and background knowledge.  This caused one child’s perceptions and strategy to challenge the other’s in a conflict of views of the problem.  Yet this conflict alone is not enough to make the experience productive, but the way in which the children interacted.  If the children found a way to “share the decision-making as the addressed the problem, they could learn a new, more sophisticated strategy than either individual had devised to begin with” (Thornton 95).  The conflict of the two initial strategies promotes an interaction that pushes the children to discover the correct strategy.  However, if the children cannot find a way to share decisions, neither child can gain much from the interaction.  The dominant child essentially solves the problem alone, and the passive child can only learn from the experience if the dominant child has the better strategy and the time to explain it. 

Perhaps the most important research cited by Thornton is that of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who argued that a child’s abilities are shaped by the support provided by his or her environment.  Vygotsky argued that problem solving in a social context allows a child to join in on an activity he or she might not have been able to take part in alone.  An adult can provide enough support for the child to learn a little here and there, without feeling the pressure to solve the overall problem alone.  As Thornton explains, “By withdrawing support in stages when the child is ready to take over, the adult helps the child expand what he or she can do and stretch toward mastering the whole process” (Thornton 99).  In this manner, the child can begin to solve a problem well beyond his or her own grasp.  Bruner and Wood called this concept of Vygotsky’s “scaffolding.”  Through this process, children learn specific and general skills; in Wertch’s example, a child learns how to construct a jigsaw puzzle, but also how to plan and monitor progress, cope with persistent difficulties, and cooperate with others.  However, Vygotsky claims that there is a specific, target area of difficulty that maximizes a child’s learning.  This area, which he calls the Zone of Proximal Development, lets children solve a new problem he or she would be incapable of completing alone, but not so far that it cannot be a learning experience due to lack of understanding.  Thornton calls this the “area of skill the child is ready to master next” (Thornton 100). 

Two other relevant researchers cited by Thornton are Wood and Rogoff.  Both extended the ideas of Vygotsky, and explored the role adults play in scaffolding problem solving experiences for children.  Wood classified the five levels of support a parent might provide their child during a scaffolded experience.  He found that the most useful level of support were those who provided firm and repeating, extending directions directly related to the immediate context.  Rogoff created the term “guided participation” to describe these scaffolded experiences.  It is explained as, “a collaborative process in which adult and child share problem-solving, the adult explaining and supporting the child’s efforts, but both the adult and child involved in the process of making decisions” (Thornton 102).  The findings of both of these researchers provide support for the author’s contention that children learn effective problem solving skills through their social interactions in invaluable ways.  

There are several clear implications from this research and Thornton’s contentions.  The first is simply to let children work together to solve problems, and to work with children to solve problems.  We should share decision-making with children, and explain to them why decisions are made.  Too often, we brush children off with the answer “because”:  “because I said so,” “because I want to,” or “because that’s just what we do.”  Thornton’s argument should push adults from that mindset, and encourage us to share reasoning with our children.  It should also help us to be aware of how our interactions affect children.  As Thornton points out, parents and teachers determine the opportunities that children have to learn.  We determine the physical environment children have to explore, the expectations they must live up to, and the meaningful opportunities they have to interact thoughtfully with adults.  It is important to take all of these factors into consideration and attempt to maximize the opportunities and responsibilities that we give children for exploration.  Children will live up to expectations we have for them, so we should strive to have high expectations for all of our children.  We should expect them to be capable of helping and having positive input into situations.  We should also connect our expectations to a purpose.  Purposeful, interesting activities will keep children motivated and engaged.  A relevant context for an activity will help students not only to be motivated to solve the problem, but will also help them structure how to approach solving it.  I also found Thornton’s discussion of the impact of confidence on children’s skills to be very profound.  The studies showing the impact of children’s expectations of failure on their subsequent success were very powerful, and show clearly how aware children are of own abilities.  We, as adults, and as mentors to children, should consistently push ourselves to improve children’s confidence in their own abilities.  We need to be careful, in all our interactions with the child, to model our confidence in their abilities to solve problems so they in turn gain confidence of their own. 

In reflecting upon my own experiences, I believe that the last implication of confidence is central to my own learning.  In elementary school, I was consistently pulled from my math class to receive “gifted and talented” tutoring.  Consequently, I lost confidence in my math abilities.  This made me less willing to participate or remain engaged even when I was there for class.  Entering junior high and high school, I always felt that my weakest subject was math.  This caused me to pay less attention and have more anxiety about my required math classes, and refused to take any more math beyond the minimum requirements.  The same is true even in college; I avoid math classes, and have a great deal of fear when I am required to take them.  Due to this personal experience, I feel that it is essential to display our confidence in children’s (especially females’) abilities in mathematics.  However, I do remember when math was fun.  In the primary grades, I feel that Vygotsky’s principles were a reality for me.  I was fortunate to have teachers who used many manipulatives and group work for math instruction, and I enjoyed interacting in “math games” with my peers.  I see the same thing in my student teaching; my primary grade students are always excited to play a math game together, and they challenge one another to see the game in different ways.  Personally, I also know that my parents, both teachers themselves, challenged me at a higher level at home, providing the scaffolding in the ZPD discussed in the text. 

            In Children Solving Problems, Thornton argues that children learn how to solve problems in a social context.  She contends that knowledge is cumulative, and children develop new skills on the basis of rich experiences and interactions with adults who guide and support their learning.  She grounds her claims on the ideas of Vygotsky, as well as the research of Wood, Rogoff, and others.  Her arguments should shape parents’ and teachers’ interactions with their children, pushing us to provide the diverse experiences children need.  If the implications of Thornton’s arguments are explored, then each of our children could become expert problem solvers.