College & Workforce Readiness From Our Research Center

Are Real-World Problem-Solving Skills Essential for Students?

By Lauraine Langreo — May 29, 2024 2 min read
Photograph of culturally diverse students and Black female teacher discussing mathematics problem at a whiteboard
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Many school districts and policymakers are stepping up efforts to teach students the skills they need to be prepared for the jobs of the future.

One big area of focus is STEM.

Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields are expected to grow at a faster rate than all other occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But less than one-third of teens and young adults listed a role in those fields as their first-choice career, according to a 2023 Gallup/Walton Family Foundation survey.

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“With increasingly rapid change being the only constant due to factors such as AI and climate change, yes, it’s important and essential for students to learn a [real-world] problem-solving approach to math and science,” said Maud Abeel, a director at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit that develops programs and public policies to boost students’ college and career readiness. “STEM is probably the best conduit for learning problem-solving available to all young people.”

Because of its focus on hands-on, problem-based learning, STEM education nurtures skills that are transferable to almost any field students pursue after graduation, experts say. These are skills that are highly valued by employers. The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Job Outlook 2024 report found that nearly 90 percent of employers said they’re looking for people with proven problem-solving skills.

Most educators agree that, to be prepared for the jobs of the future, students need to learn math and science through a problem-solving approach that encourages them to tackle real-world challenges, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,183 teachers, principals, and district leaders conducted in March and April. Most educators also say that this approach is important for all students, not just those who plan to go into STEM careers.

“I believe that problem-solving skills and critical thinking are imperative to the survival of students,” said an elementary teacher in Georgia in an open-ended response to the survey. “The skills will be needed to address issues that occur in everyday life. In addition, problem-solving and critical thinking are at the very core of the evolution of humanity and its continued existence.”

Still, there are plenty of educators who counter that students need to learn the basics before moving on to real-world problem-solving lessons.

“While learning math through ‘real problem-solving’ projects is interesting, engaging, and important, overlooking the foundational necessities is a huge, and common, mistake,” said a high school teacher in New York. “While this process can often feel like a repetitive grind full of rote, formulaic practice, it is nevertheless essential. First things must come first.”

Having solid foundational knowledge in science and math is important, because students could get discouraged if they aren’t good in those areas, experts agree. But a real-world problem-solving approach could help students be more engaged in the learning and gain a better understanding of how the topics they’re studying will be useful to them in the future, experts also point out.

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