I’ve written about how my own straight-A, good-at-school childhood set me up for some serious problems later in life. I was simply not prepared to handle the kinds of challenges one faces in real-life. As a young adult, I longed for the simple, one-right-answer, follow-the-steps thinking that I was rewarded for in school.
So, as a teacher, I wanted to avoid creating a classroom where kids meekly ask “Is this good?”, hoping for my approval so they could “be done.” I wanted them to grapple with the kinds of problems that they will certainly face as future leaders.
I came across the phrase “fuzzy problems” in this article from Carol Ann Tomlinson:
an appropriately differentiated classroom will provide [experiences] that are complex enough, abstract enough, open-ended enough, and multifaceted enough to cause students to stretch in knowledge, thinking, and production. These classrooms provide consistent expectations for gifted students to work with fuzzy problems, make great mental leaps, and grow in ability to exercise independence.
The term “fuzzy problems” brings to mind the messy, realistic issues that we all have to deal with as adults, but which were rarely found in my classroom! I particularly relate to the need to help students “grow in ability to exercise independence.” So what does a fuzzy problem look like?
Fuzzy Problems should:
- have multiple right solutions
- have multiple pathways to get to those solutions
- have clearly wrong solutions (This is so important! It ensures that this isn’t mere fluff.)
- be missing some important information (so kids have to make assumptions, fill in gaps, or make a best guess)
- lead to new thinking (do this task year after year and you’ll keep seeing new solutions)
I was also introduced to the term “ill-defined problems” in a series of books from Ken Smith that describes similar tasks.
For teachers, these types of problems challenge us as well. We have to learn to back off a bit, avoid giving too much help, while also supporting our students in what may be a frustrating experience. I’ve heard the the term “Meddler In The Middle” to describe this type of role.
Now, if students have excelled in typical school tasks, they may be horrified by fuzzy problems. They will be repulsed by the ambiguity. They will keep asking clarifying questions. They will want to turn it into a worksheet. So, let’s consider how we can keep things fuzzy for our students, but still support them with necessary scaffolds.
When kids keep asking those clarifying questions, I like to say, “Make a reasonable assumption.” No, it’s not very helpful, but it gives them ownership of the problem. They have my permission to take a guess and see what happens.
I would also address the issue head-on in the beginning of the year. I’d tell my own story. I’d explain how I had to learn to handle “fuzzy problems” as an adult.
I’d start the year with my favorite fuzzy problem, The Marshmallow Challenge, and be sure to repeat it at least once in the year.
The more our students confront fuzzy problems, the better they’ll become at handling them, and the less they’ll seek out simple, one-right-answer tasks.