Looking for wisdom and empathy


Political events in 2016 have been screaming at us: WAKE UP!! Britons slammed the door in the face of their EU neighbours. Americans threw a rock (in the shape of Donald Trump) to smash the windows of the political establishment. Dissatisfaction with politics as usual is evident around the world. 

What to do about it?

On one side of the political divide, people are feeling hopeless and shocked: how is it possible that someone like Trump won? On the other side, people have been feeling hopeless for a long time: Obama promised change, but so many communities are still facing poverty and racial tensions. Where is the change that was promised? How can the government be trusted? A similar scenario is played out in many countries besides the United States.

Many political leaders have failed to live up to expectations – or even listen to the concerns of ordinary people. In the US, this is what has made voters angry and turn to Trump. But the promises of Trump and other anti-politicians are exaggerated and hollow. They promise change but can they really make change happen?

As we have seen with Obama and will probably see with Trump, one person can (at best) inspire change, but making change happen takes time and is difficult. First, there are always pressures that favour status quo and undermine all change efforts. Second, today’s societies are complex and change makers are needed at all levels: in national and local governments, in businesses, non-profits, social enterprises and voluntary organisations, in the media, etc. Third, people are easily drawn to simple solutions, which are compelling but often misguided or inadequate. 

Here are three examples to illustrate the point of complex problems and simplistic solutions that don’t work.

The loss of manufacturing jobs

Complex problem: Many Trump voters live in communities that are suffering because manufacturing jobs have disappeared. 20 million Americans worked in manufacturing in 1977. Today, this figure is 12 million. Some of the jobs have been lost to other countries (e.g. China), some have been lost because of technological advances. Over the same time period, many new jobs have been created, especially in the services sector. During the Obama presidency, more than 9 million new jobs were created. However, these were often jobs in other locations and required different skill-sets.

Simple solution: Abolishing free trade agreements and putting up tariffs, as Trump has suggested.

Likely outcome: The impact of free trade has been extensively researched. Tariffs will likely harm US consumers who are currently buying cheaper goods from China and elsewhere, such as clothes and phones. Longer term, the industries that are being protected will suffer because there is less pressure for them to innovate.

Better solution: Improving education and re-training people, so that they can work in health care, leisure and hospitality, retail, construction and other areas where jobs will be growing. Supporting the relocation of families to areas with more jobs and not enough qualified people.

Here are two graphs to illustrate the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US and the likely growth of jobs in other sectors.



(Source: McKinsey)

Improving education

Complex problem: There is dissatisfaction with the quality of education systems around the world. In the United States, 82% of students graduated with a regular high school diploma four years after they started 9th grade. The achievement gap is huge: children in extreme poverty are half as likely to graduate from high school, and one tenth as likely to graduate from college as students from the most affluent communities.

Simple solution: A myriad of education policies shape the school system in different states in the US (read more here and here). Arguably, the main driver that influences behaviour in schools is accountability. Schools and teachers are being held accountable for the academic achievement of their students and this data is shared publicly.

Likely outcome: Test scores may go up over time, but this does not mean that the quality of learning has changed. Test scores can be improved by teaching to the test, by expelling lower-performing students, etc. However, teachers do not necessarily have better skills to teach in ways that improves student learning.

Better solution: Invest in the quality of all teachers. Prioritise the sort of professional development that is known to improve student learning outcomes: it needs to be long-term (at least 15 hours, but preferably 50 hours, over 6 months), practical (related to the content of what is being taught), evidence-based, externally supported by experts, etc.

What kind of teachers’ professional development helps learners?


(Source: Prof Rob Coe.)

Supporting farmers

This example is from a very different context, but it also highlights how complex problems cannot be solved with simplistic solutions.

Complex problem: Millions of poor people in many African countries live in rural areas and work as smallholder farmers. They don’t have a stable income, they often experience poverty and suffer from malnutrition.

Simple solution: Give them food aid.

Likely outcome: This will provide short-term relief to farmers and their families, but is unlikely to help them get out of poverty longer term. It does little to improve the resilience of farmers to survive during periods of drought. (On the other hand, this solution may benefit agriculture producers in countries where ‘food aid’ is produced. For example: between 1991 and 2009, US has provided $3.2bn of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia. 94% of this, worth $3bn, has been in the form of food aid. In 2008, 99% of food aid came from within the USA. Furthermore: because of transport and packaging, it cost $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid from the US to Ethiopia. Source: Oxfam.)

Better solution: (1) Supporting farmers with credit, so that they can buy high quality seeds and fertilizers. (2) Deliver seeds and fertilizers to local villages, because distances are vast and transportation is often underdeveloped. (3) Train the farmers so that they can maximise the yields from their farm. (4) Create access to markets, for example, through a network of local village markets, where farmers can sell their produce and earn an income. One Acre Fund has already served more than 300,000 families with this solution. The income of the families has gone up by more than 50%. 

Are we doomed?

Each of these problems discussed above requires a thoughtful solution. Soundbites don’t bring manufacturing jobs back; simplistic policies are not enough to make a difference to learning outcomes. Wisdom is needed. By wisdom I mean the ability to understand issues, use knowledge and solve genuine, complex problems.

At this point, I can imagine despair. “People are not educated enough to come up with these wise solutions and put them into practice. If they were, we would have seen more progress.”

According to the latest international surveys, roughly one in twelve young people can read, understand and critically evaluate a somewhat complex text. One in eight can use their mathematical knowledge to solve real-life problems. One in nine can creatively solve somewhat complex problems. These are average figures for the wealthy members of the OECD, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, etc (PISA, 2012). In poorer countries such as Brazil or Malaysia, roughly one in hundred students can read critically and solve somewhat complex problems.

So are we doomed?

Perhaps not.

Imagine a conversation about the quality of education 200 years ago. At that time, 12% of world population was literate, according to estimates. (In Great Britain, that figure was around 50% and in a few countries like the Netherlands, around 85% of people were literate. But in the world as a whole, one in eight was literate.) Today, 85% of the world population is literate. Who would have believed it 200 years ago?


(Source: Our World in Data.)

Or take another example. In 1950, about half of all primary school aged children around the world were actually in school. Today, this figure is 91%. (Source.) Would you have believed it in 1950 that this was going to be possible?

So while I am sad and worried about the state of the world, I am also optimistic. Unbelievable advances are possible over the course of our lifetime, if we harness the resources and talents that are available. The question is: do we want to do it? Do we want to work together with people who may have different views, perhaps also different values? That is where empathy comes in. Empathy means understanding the feelings and perspectives of other people. This is the foundation of good communication, teamwork and leadership.


Like many others, I have also recently reflected on the need to engage with, and listen to, people who have different views. Not argue to change someone’s mind, but listen and engage. I am reminded of Daniel Dennett’s comments on how to argue intelligently. Dennett suggests these four steps which help compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Imagine what political debates and social media conversations would be like if these steps were followed? Or how the 24 hour news media could be a force for good if they tried to understand people with diverse views, instead of promoting their own ideology?

We are not doomed. In many schools around the world, children are already learning how to disagree respectfully and how to understand people with different points of view. In social and emotional learning programmes, children learn to identify and express their emotions, to solve problems with their friends and family members, to manage their emotions and calm down. Second Step is one such programme, backed by robust research. One of the skills children practise is how to calm down: by using their personal stop signal, by naming the feeling (thereby beginning to control the emotion) and by breathing deeply, counting or using positive self-talk. Children learn that they need to calm down before beginning to solve an emotional problem with their friend or family member!

When speaking about this kind of work, some of my friends have said: “I wish I had learned these skills when I was younger!” Indeed, imagine what would happen in families, schools and workplaces when more people learn to understand each others’ perspectives. When we learn to listen to each other.

(At this point, I am not going to comment on the immigration debate, or the rise of race and religious hate crime. Both of these topics are highly relevant to what I have discussed above, but they probably need a separate post.)


One day, all people can fulfil their potential and become positive contributors to the world. To achieve this dream, we need more wisdom and greater empathy.

This is my personal reason why I work to support the development of wisdom and empathy, problem solving and teamwork among their students. This is why we are creating learning resources and supporting the professional development of teachers

Incredible progress has already been made over the past 50, 100, 200 years. Let us try to speed up as we move towards that better world.

Take action now

Luxury or necessity? Critical thinking and problem solving should be at the core of learning for all

This article appeared in Unlocking a world of potential, a publication by British Council.

Even in a world where most children are still learning basic skills, critical thinking and problem solving can and should be taught.

In a low-income community in South Delhi, India, students are reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Today’s discussion is about the Potions Master. The teacher encourages students to think independently. ‘I don’t want solutions which the author gave you. I want you to be thinking, to be imagining of a better solution.’ What happens next? It is visible that students are thinking hard; they are trying to come up with different answers. Deeper learning is happening. You can see an inspiring video of this classroom here.

Learning to think critically and solve problems is not easy, but classrooms like this one suggest that all children are capable of it. However, the reality in most schools around the world is quite different. Even if children were capable of critical thinking and problem solving, they are currently not mastering these skills. Only four out of ten primary school students reach a basic level of competence in numeracy, literacy and science. Given this reality, what is the role of critical thinking and problem solving? Can these skills be taught at all?


Percentage of children who reach a basic learning level in reading, writing and arithmetic. Each country is represented by a circle sized in proportion to its population. Click here to see the interactive infographic or here to read The Learning Challenge report.

The meaning of critical thinking and problem solving

Cognitive scientists suggest there are three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving. Critical thinking is a specific way of thinking. This means that reasoning may be uncritical or critical, and the same applies for the other two types of thinking. It is critical if it has three features:

Effective – critical thinking avoids common mistakes such as only seeing one side of an issue, discounting new evidence when it conflicts with your previously held views, reasoning from passion rather than logic, and failing to support statements with evidence.

Novel – critical thinking involves thinking in new ways, not just remembering solutions or situations that are similar enough to guide you.

Self-directed – critical thinking involves thinking independently, in a way that is not overly controlled by anyone else, such as a teacher.

When young people choose what to study, they can think critically by considering multiple perspectives: the opinion of family members, possible job openings, wages and graduation placement rates. A recent international survey suggests that fewer than half of young people have the necessary knowledge about all of these different perspectives.

Effective thinking also involves an open mind: being open to new evidence even if it is in conflict with one’s previously held views. For example, some people think that HIV spreads by sharing baths, towels or cutlery, or using the same toilets or swimming pools. In fact, none of this is true. But discrimination continues in many communities, even if people’s views are based on misinformation and prejudices. How will people react when they are presented with evidence on how HIV really spreads? It is not easy to change one’s mind, especially if the issue is very emotional. That’s why the attitude of having an open mind and being open to new evidence needs to be practised at school, so that it becomes a habit.

Is it important?

Critical thinking and problem solving may sound like terms that a young philosophy student would talk about at university, but actually these are important skills for everyone.

One of the main reasons is an economic one: it is about jobs and livelihoods. Critical thinking enables people to make better decisions and improve their livelihood. This is vital for everyone. For example, 75 per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and are farmers. Being able to think critically about different approaches to water and grassland management may boost productivity and increase income. In some communities, adopting different breeds has grown milk yields by 65 per cent, and better grassland management has doubled the income of herders.

The economic argument has far-reaching implications. Because of technological change and productivity growth, the nature of work is changing in agriculture and many other industries. A growing proportion of jobs now require teams of people working together to solve unique problems, as opposed to routine problems. However, relatively few students learn these skills at school. In most countries, fewer than one in ten (15-year-old) students are able to solve fairly complex problems creatively, according to the PISA tests in 2012. 


Creative problem solving among 15-year-olds

According to management consultants McKinsey & Co, 75 million young people around the world are unemployed and a shortfall of 85 million high and middle-skilled workers is expected by 2020. In a recent international survey, four out of ten employers said a skills shortage is a leading reason for entry-level vacancies. Alongside general work ethic and teamwork skills, problem solving is among the skills that are highly valued among employers – but where the competence of new hirees does not meet expectations.

Critical thinking and problem solving are also important for another reason, which goes far beyond jobs. The purpose of education is also about enabling learners to fulfil their potential and make a positive contribution to the world. Better critical thinking and problem solving would enable both.

Can it be taught?

This brings us to the question: if critical thinking and problem solving are important, can these skills be taught?

General critical thinking programmes have been relatively popular in the past. These have often focused on learning ‘how to think’, but research suggests that this approach usually brings about a modest benefit. Why? Critical thinking is not a general skill; you always think about something. Being able to think critically about historical events does not mean that the same person is able to think critically about the nuances of farming. Both critical thinking strategies and content knowledge are needed.

Therefore, a more promising approach involves integrating critical thinking in to subjects. Critical thinking strategies – such as looking at an issue from multiple perspectives – need to be made explicit by the teacher, and practised extensively by students.

All of the above can only be achieved if we invest in high quality professional learning programmes for teachers. How to model critical thinking, how to ask open questions, and how to provide feedback that enables students to solve non-routine problems. Teachers need new skills and better tools to meet these expectations. Curriculum resources have to be redesigned with critical thinking and problem solving in mind. And finally, the focus of exams needs to shift to evaluate these skills as well.

If students learn how to think critically and solve problems, it would make a big difference to their livelihood and happiness. This is not a question of luxury.

Learning to solve problems


“Robots – memorising formulas, regurgitating facts. Pretending that we understood when we didn’t have a clue. Playing by the rules of the examiner. That’s before we met Mr G, who rescued us from the education system that failed us all. He was a teacher who relished making you think, and not telling you the answer. The one whose enthusiasm was contagious.”

This quote is from last year’s ‘My Education’ report. Could a teacher hope for higher praise from a pupil? She says that because of her teacher, she has discovered the beauty of mathematics and learned how to think.

Thinking is not easy. Teaching pupils how to think is much harder than getting them to remember things. “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” This is one of the main findings from cognitive science, as summarised by Daniel Willingham in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

Cognitive scientists have tested this with numerous experiments, concluding that the brain is far better suited to support the ability to see and move, as opposed to think. For example, consider this paradox. “A teacher tells the students that there will be an unexpected test next week, but the test will be a surprise. They will not know the day of the test until it actually happens.” Can you figure out when the test will be?

I was asked this many years ago, when I was being interviewed for a place to study at university. The interviewer, a charming, eccentric man – chain-smoked through the interview, and was constantly drinking this strong, smoky tea – encouraged me to think, step-by-step. Could the test be on Friday? Why not? If not Friday, then how about Thursday? With some guiding questions and encouragement, I eventually managed to solve the paradox. (Click here to read more about this paradox.)

The value of problem solving

But if teaching how to think is hard, is it worth the effort? Many educators will probably agree that the ability to think is valuable in itself. Thinking will enable us fulfil our unique human potential. However, beyond this intrinsic value, thinking is also valuable in practical terms.

Consider the chart below: the number of jobs in the US economy that require working collaboratively to solve non-routine problems grew dramatically from 1960 to 2000. (Source: The Learning Society report by Cisco.)

Nonroutine tasks.jpg

In the original research paper, a task was defined as routine if “it can be accomplished by machines following explicit programmed rules”. For example, moving a windshield into place on an assembly line, and many other tasks where you do the same thing over and over again. As is evident form the graph, these tasks have been declining most rapidly since the 1980s. In contrast, nonroutine interactive tasks have been growing quickly. This is where you have to solve new problems, while interacting with other people.

There is nothing radically new about the so-called 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity etc. However, the reality is that far more people, compared to just 20-30 years ago, need to master these skills to earn a living.

McKinsey & Co recently conducted a major survey across Europe. The idea was to find out which skills are valued by employers but missing among young people. In most countries surveyed, the picture was quite similar. Pretty consistently, among the top four missing skills were: problem solving and analysis, teamwork, spoken communication, and work ethic.

Somewhat surprisingly, lack of skills was perceived as a less urgent issue in the United Kingdom compared to Germany, France and other European countries. Yet, just a few months ago, there were 940,000 unemployed 16 to 24 year olds in the United Kingdom. Youth unemployment rate was 21 percent. Young people need better skills (in the UK, especially vocational skills) to match the needs of employers. This is a very complex problem to solve – which in itself is further evidence about the importance of collaborative problem solving.

Problem solving in mathematics

How can one learn to solve problems like the one I was asked in my university interview? Let us start by exploring how problem solving can be taught and learned in the context of one subject, mathematics, and then look at other subjects. The following recommendations are based on a practice guide published by What Works Clearinghouse in the US. After careful review of numerous research papers, the panel of experts put together a list of recommendations to teach problem solving in mathematics in grades 4-8.

Recommendation 1: Prepare problems and use them in whole-class instruction

The idea here is to find both routine and non-routine problems for students to solve. Non-routine meaning problems for “which there is not a predictable, well-rehearsed approach or pathway explicitly suggested by the task, task instructions, or a worked-out example”. A couple of useful links: sample problems can be found from the Illuminations site, the Math Forum, practice problems from PISA etc. When selecting which problems to use, it is important to ensure that students will understand the problem. If they don’t know the context or language, then their problem solving capacity is taken up by trying to understand what is meant by the question. Teachers can anticipate these issues, and select problems with familiar contexts. Also, it may be helpful to reword problems, using words that are connected to pupils’ previous experiences.

It is also helpful to consider students’ previous knowledge of mathematical content when selecting problem-solving tasks. Problems aligned with the current unit often require skills taught in previous years. It may be useful to review skills learned earlier, which are needed to solve the problem. Struggling students are likely to find it especially useful.

Recommendation 2: Assist students in monitoring and reflecting on the problem-solving process.

Another useful strategy is to provide students with a list of prompts that help them think during problem solving. They can be in the form of questions or simple tasks lists. (See a couple of examples below, from the same practice guide.)

Problem solving prompts.jpg

There are a few different ways in which prompts can be shared with pupils. They can be posted on the board, included on worksheets, listed on index cards. In addition, teachers can play the helpful role of modelling (thinking aloud) how to monitor and reflect on the problem-solving process.

Recommendation 3: Teach students how to use visual representations.

This is another simple technique with robust research evidence. Selecting (appropriate) visual representations is likely to be very helpful. For example, schematic diagrams are useful for ratio and proportion problems, percent bars for percent problems, strip diagrams for comparison and fraction problems etc.

Here is an example from the same practice guide. “There are 4 adults and 2 children who need to cross the river. A small boat is available that can hold either 1 adult or 1 or 2 small children. Everyone can row the boat. How many one-way trips does it take for all of them to cross the river?”

I quite like this first visual representation.

Problem solving river1.jpg

It’s a nice little drawing, but the only issue is that it lacks relevant details for actually solving the problem and it includes some irrelevant details. This next one does a better job.

Problem solving river2.jpg

Recommendation 4: Expose students to multiple problem-solving strategies.

Evidence suggests that if you know how to use multiple strategies, you are likely to be more successful. That’s why it is important for teachers to provide instruction in multiple strategies, sometimes even using unsuccessful strategies. This will enable pupils understand that in some situations one needs to try more than one approach to solve a problem. Providing students with worked examples so that they can compare multiple strategies next to each other is another useful practice. This is an important takeaway: research has shown that studying worked examples is a time-efficient way of learning multiple problem-solving strategies.

Recommendation 5: Help students recognise and articulate mathematical concepts and notation.

Mathematical concepts and notation, once pupils are comfortable with them, will help them think about the problem. As always, one should pay attention to pupils’ prior knowledge of concepts and notation, and start from there. When observing the way pupils are solving the problem, teachers can look for opportunities to call out when they use mathematical concepts and notation. Another idea is to use small-group activities so that pupils can discuss the process how they had solved a problem in a worked example, and importantly, the reasoning behind each step.

The full practice guide on mathematical problem solving includes more detailed guidance, along with numerous examples, and ways to overcome common roadblocks in implementing these ideas. This very helpful guide can be downloaded here. Besides mathematics resources, What Works Clearinghouse also includes practice guides and helpful reports and reviews on many other subjects.

Transferring the skill of problem-solving

As we have seen, research has some helpful suggestions how to develop problem solving in mathematics. But is this skill transferable? If students become proficient in mathematical problem solving, will they be able to solve problems in other subjects?

Transferring problem-solving skills to different domains is difficult. In a wonderful article (“Critical thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?”), Daniel Willingham reviews evidence about the impact of various critical thinking programmes and suggests some reasons why their success has been limited. Critical thinking and problem solving are not general skills that can be applied to any situation, after they have been learned. “The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.” Willingham cites that programmes including puzzles like those found on IQ tests report gains in IQ scores, but no significant gains in solving other types of problems.

Does this mean that problem-solving and critical thinking should not be taught? Well, they can be taught and learned, but not easily. The fact that more than 55 percent of students in Shanghai who took part in PISA 2012 were judged to be highly proficient in mathematical problem solving should give us encouragement. This compares to 12 percent of students across OECD and 13 percent of students in the UK who are able to reach this level.

As Willingham concludes in the article mentioned above, there are thinking strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. This does not mean that the ability to solve problems or think critically will then automatically translate to other domains. It does only if one has sufficient knowledge in the other domain and sufficient practice in using these thinking skills with different types of problems.

Helping your pupils become critical thinkers and problems-solvers is a worthwhile aim. With a lot of attention to domain knowledge and smart, diligent practice over a long period of time, it should be an achievable goal.

If dogs can learn it, then human beings can too. This is an actual advert I saw in the park 🙂

Problem Solving For Dogs.jpg