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Reviewing Problem Solving

By: Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP

Problem solving is a cornerstone of the FastBridge Learning® system and the FAST™ assessments. This model dates from work by Dr. Stan Deno of the University of Minnesota. Deno and colleagues pioneered efforts to develop methods of assessment and instruction that focus on improving students’ skills through examination of data and hypothesis testing. Deno adapted a five-step problem solving model from work by Bransford and Stein (1984) that was originally designed for use in business settings. The Bransford and Stein model included five steps and was known at the IDEAL problem-solving method.

  • Identify the problem
  • Define the problem
  • Explore alternative solutions
  • Apply solution
  • Look at outcomes

Deno adapted the IDEAL model with specific recommendations for use in schools (1985). His original adaptation included the following steps:

  • Problem identification
  • Problem definition
  • Exploring solutions
  • Implementing solutions
  • Problem solution

An important aspect of Deno’s adaptation of the model for schools was a focus on how a student’s school-based problems were the result of the interaction between the student and the school environment (e.g., instruction). This distinction is important because it does not assume that the student “is” the problem. Instead, the difficulty is understood to be an unintended consequence of the student’s unique learning needs and the instruction currently in place.

Over the last three decades Deno’s model has been applied in many schools with great success. Deno published an updated iteration of the model in 2013 that reconnected with the original Bransford and Stein version (Deno, 2013). The updated version took into account the evolution of problem solving in schools and the emergence of systematic efforts to address the needs of all students through methods such as Response to Intervention and Multi-Tier Systems of Support (Brown-Chidsey & Bickford, 2015). The FastBridge Learning® system and FAST™ assessments are designed to provide tools to assist educators in applying a problem-solving approach to students’ school difficulties. This blog is an introduction to a series that will review each of the steps in the problem-solving model and how educators can use student data to develop and implement solutions for students. The FastBridge Learning® system incorporates the problem-solving model so that teachers have timely information about student learning that can be connected with interventions for those needing additional support. When using FAST™ assessments, users will encounter references to the five problem solving stages.

The problem-solving terminology used by the FastBridge Learning® system includes:

  1. Problem identification
  2. Problem analysis
  3. Plan development
  4. Plan implementation
  5. Plan evaluation

These five steps are essentially the same as the ones that Deno recommended for addressing school difficulties and are defined below. Upcoming blogs will provide detailed explanations of each stage as well as examples of how FastBridge Learning® features support each stage.

Problem Identification

This stage begins when the possibility of a problem is brought forward by a school staff member or a parent. At this stage, there are few details about the extent of the problem, or why it is present. Problem identification initiates investigation about a possible problem.

Problem Analysis

In order to confirm the nature of the problem, it must be analyzed. This stage includes gathering data that documents the details of a student’s school difficulties. Both Deno and others defined school problems as the difference between what is expected and what is occurring. This definition is both eloquent and functional because it focuses on how the student’s current performance varies from what all students in the same grade are expected to be able to do. It is worth noting the the problem analysis can highlight the level of urgency related to a problem. Students whose current performance is close to, but below, expectations have less urgent problems than those whose performance is substantially below expectations.

Plan Development

In response to the problem definition, school teams can develop detailed plans to help the student improve in order to meet grade level expectations. Importantly, improvement plans need to take into account the current instruction as well the time and effort needed for the student to catch up to peers. Students who are significantly behind will require more resources in order to catch up to grade level.

Plan Implementation

This stage involves implementing the plan over a period of time. There are many details and logistics required in order to make sure that plans are implemented correctly. In addition, it is important to have a way to confirm implementation accuracy. This is the most labor-intensive stage but also the one that will yield the desired results.

Plan Evaluation

In order to know if the plan is working there must be some form of progress monitoring. Each problem solving plan should always be accompanied by a specific progress monitoring assessments. These assessments serve to document how well the plan is achieving the goal of reducing the gap between the student’s current performance and the grade level expectation. In addition to regular progress monitoring, plan evaluation includes scheduled reviews of each student’s data to determine if the outcomes meet the goal or if changes are needed.

In coming weeks, each blog will provide more details about the problem-solving steps and how school teams can set up procedures to implement and review each step. The problem solving approach to addressing students’ school difficulties was introduced by Stan Deno and enhanced over time by educators seeking to support the learning needs of all students. The FastBridge Learning® system was developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota who seek to promote and extend Dr. Deno’s legacy by incorporating the problem-solving model in 21st century instructional technology tools that support success for all students.

References

Deno, S. L. (1985). Curriculum-based measurement: The emerging alternative. Exceptional Children, 52, 219-232. doi:10.1177/001440298505200303

Bransford, J., & Stein, B. S. (1984). The ideal problem solver: A guide for improving thinking, learning, and creativity. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman.

Brown-Chidsey, R., & Andren, K. J. (2013). Assessment for intervention: A problem-solving approach (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

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