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Maeve Reynolds

Children Solving Problems: Critical Analysis

In Children Solving Problems, Thorton expands on Vygotskys well-known theory of the

environmental impacts on learning. Vygotsky and Thorton hold that social interaction is key to

problem solving and a strong contributor in how a childs problem solving skills develop.

Specifically, Thorton argues that social interaction is integral to developing higher cognitive

functions. To analyze Thortons belief and its implications for teachers I will begin by discussing

the evidence in Children Solving Problems supporting Thortons argument. I will then examine

what teachers need to know about the suggestions Thorton provides on developing problem

solving skills. I will conclude by analyzing how these suggestions will inform my future


Thorton defends her belief that social interaction is crucial to the development of higher

cognitive functioning with several examples. She first shows the clear connection between social

interaction and higher cognitive functioning with the example of behaviors and skills that require

learning information from someone else. For example, a child cannot be expected to determine

how to solve complex problems like the cross-product rule for balance scale tasks without being

passed knowledge from someone else (Thorton, 93). This example shows readers how problem-

solving at its core is intertwined with social interaction; the majority of humanitys biggest

achievements have occurred not by the work of one individual in isolation, but by the

collaboration and sharing of knowledge between many. Thorton further solidifies the role of

social interaction in higher cognitive functioning by showing the influence of culture on a childs

development of problem solving skills using a study by researcher Barbara Rogoff. The study

found that differences in cultural expectations of children impact the skills that children develop;
children live up to the expectations that are set for them. Thorton concludes from this evidence

that the society of a child impacts their problem solving skills in that adults shape the

opportunities for problem solving that children are given. By limiting or expanding a childs

opportunities to problem solve, children will learn different problem-solving skills. In this way

the expectations of a childs society impact the mature problem solving skills they are able to

develop (Thorton, 117). This clearly shows how the development of problem-solving skills is

social by nature. Success in the use of scaffolding further emphasizes the complimentary

relationship between social interaction and problem solving skills. Thorton provides examples of

how parent or more advanced peer aid can assist a child in learning, like with the gradual transfer

of completing a jigsaw puzzle from the parent to child (Thorton, 98). As the parent thinks out

loud while completing the puzzle the child learns more sophisticated cognitive functions like

reflection and planning. The fact that this method is effective in teaching the child shows how

social interaction is closely intertwined with the development of problem-solving skills.

Thorton points out two encompassing areas of suggestion for teachers and parents to

focus on: purpose and confidence. Purpose is important in problem solving because meaning

motivates children. They are likely to be more committed to a task when they understand the

reason for completing it. Having a meaningful goal associated with a problem effects how the

child goes about solving the problem (Thorton, 108). Using this information it makes sense for

teachers to work to create problems for students where the goal and purpose are clear to children,

problems with real life connections. However, I think teachers should be aware that while

providing problems with real life applications can motivate children and help them learn, the

current education systems in place require that children perform well on standardized tests. To do

so, students must be able to solve problems without context and perhaps without knowing the
purpose by remembering the necessary information. In my experiences, this has been much

harder. For example, as a child I loved setting up grocery stores in my house with empty boxes of

food, determining prices and adding up the total cost for my customers. However, when it

came time to add decimals in school I struggled until my mom reminded me that it was just like

adding up prices at the grocery store. Without that connection, I was unable to solve the problem.

I couldnt see a purpose or relate it to real life. Teachers should be aware that while teaching with

scenarios in this way has many learning advantages students must be able to transfer skills to

decontextualized situations like standardized tests.

Success in problem solving increases childrens confidence and can make them feel more

competent. While social interactions can benefit a childs confidence, they can also be harmful.

Thorton illustrates this with the example of Paul Hanworth, a boy who performs better at

problem solving when asked to pretend he is the smartest kid in the class than he does as himself.

When asked why he did better as the other child, he responded, because Im Paul Hanworth

(Thorton, 111). Paul has come to believe that he is not as smart as other children from the

interactions he has witnessed. However, teachers can also use this relationship for good by

working to praise more and criticize less in order to build childrens confidence in their skills. If

we praise children for their approaches to a problem rather than criticize them for a wrong

answer, we encourage them to continue to learn. For example, when learning angles in

elementary school on one assignment I got every single question wrong. When I got back the

paper all I saw were red xs and see me written across the top. Seeing my failure like that

embarrassed me and for years after I felt that I was horrible at math. One mistake like holding a

protractor wrong caused me to doubt my abilities and feel a sense of learned helplessness.
Teachers should learn from this that the way they respond to children in the classroom is crucial

to helping their confidence and therefore their problem solving skills.

Thortons argument that social interaction is crucial to developing higher cognitive skills

will definitely impact my future teaching. The implications of Thortons work for teachers that I

discussed are factors I plan to keep in mind for my own teaching. For example, I think it is

important to be aware of how what problems you present to children and the language you use

when addressing their work. These factors communicate to children what you believe they are

capable of, and whether or not they are succeeding. Being aware of the way social interaction

affects development of higher cognitive functions means that I can work to help students mature

their problem-solving skills through providing meaningful and clear problem solving


Thornton, Stephanie. Children Solving Problems. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.