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We have all been there, "Critical Thinking: Solve why blah blah blah" in our elementary and high school assignments. We've all hated them to death, but I think sometimes we see the value in these things a little bit later in life.

Today I'm a software developer and inventor. I make things and solve problems for a living and I look back regretfully that I did not understand the true nature of the questions earlier in life that faced me in school. I had this realization the other day while helping my 8th grade son with his algebra questions. I was able to see the context of this now and explain to him why these questions are important, even though the school, teachers and government miss the boat. I explained to him that the TEST MAKERS' goals are to help people learn and to evaluate how well we can solve logic problems that require us to think freely and figure out how to solve problems out of the box. Like I said, this is all lost in translation with all of the government stipulations, etc…

But, I got to thinking that I'd really like to help my children learn how to think properly about problems. In this case I instructed my son to always draw a picture first of any problem he faces and to delineate the things that he knows about the problem or situation. We are visual creatures and we have to have pictures, not just text, to help us visualize things. With this ability, I explained, he will be able to solve any problem that he faces, at least in academia and in the intellectual worker world.

After that experience, though, I felt the need to find more challenges or puzzles for him and my other children to solve. Things that will help in both cognitive and common sense development hopefully. The problem I'm having is that I'm not really readily finding any resources that will help in this venture.

Is anyone familiar with some not-too-boring and contrived exercises or such that could be useful in helping children by giving them practice at solving problems in a wide range of scenarios both analytically and perhaps socially?

I realize that this might be a steep order, but I the epiphany that I had really has me feeling an acute need for helping them in this regard so that it doesn't take them another 10-20 years to start seeing things in context.

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My answer summarized: I conclude, based on what you write that you act out of regret which raises a fear. Your fear is that your children will miss out on something if you do not stimulate their problem solving. Regret and fear aren't proper motivators. –  Mike de Klerk Sep 4 '13 at 12:46
I would remove the 'we are visual creatures' bit - it often isn't true... –  Rory Alsop Sep 4 '13 at 17:03
@ylluminate Your motivation, partially constructed of regret and fear, as you say yourself, is inferior to a more constructive motivation that would not involve regret and fear. Its not about what you do, its the motivation that matters. Its the motivation that defines the 'quality' of the action. You may have to accept a bit more that each being has its own path of progress, tasting a pudding through proxy seams impossible to me. None the less I wish you and your children the best, as that's the motivation behind my answer and comments. –  Mike de Klerk Sep 5 '13 at 3:50
Well I think you're off base quite a ways here & reading a tremendous amount of "stuff" into your assumptions / assertions. I guess it's simply a lack personal context of the situation & my words may be lacking to explain it all to you, but c'est la vie. My true motivation is to see them reach maximum potential out of a deep and eternal love for my children, wanting them to maximize this mortality so that they can enjoy the fruits of a deeper and richer world to come. So ultimately my motivation always boils down to love, even though other things promote and prompt realization & recognition. –  ylluminate Sep 5 '13 at 5:18
I think Mike is completely correct here - I have taught many hundreds of individuals over the years, at all ages from toddlers to 40+ and one definite point: everyone is different, with their own motivators. My own kids would not respond well to anything like 'draw a picture of the problem' - it is entirely alien to the way they work. Work with your children to find out what they respond best to, then use that technique. You will find it helps a lot. –  Rory Alsop Sep 5 '13 at 8:28
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2 Answers

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"We are visual creatures and we have to have pictures, not just text, to help us visualize things."

I'd be a bit careful about that idea. Not everyone thinks the same way. In fact, people have a variety of learning styles, and most people find that one or two styles of learning may be more effective for them than others.

You may want to suggest a variety of strategies, such as the drawing strategy you suggested, and let your son decide for himself which of the strategies work best. He may find that drawing is helpful for some problems, but other strategies might be better for other problems.

However, to address your primary question:

Is anyone familiar with some not-too-boring and contrived exercises or such that could be useful in helping children by giving them practice at solving problems in a wide range of scenarios both analytically and perhaps socially?

It sounds like what you are looking for are word problems of the type I know as "brain teasers". These are generally text-based scenarios, frequently described as real-world problems, that call for analytic thinking that helps teach children to break out of the complacent modes of thought we sometimes wind up in.

In some cases, they provide the bare minimum of information to solve problems through rather complex deductive reasoning. Other times they provide "red herring" details that seem relevant, but aren't.

Some examples:

"There are two barbers in town. One has a great haircut, and a sparkling clean shop. The other has a bad haircut, and his shop is worn and dirty. Which barber do you ask to cut your hair?" Answer: the barber with the bad hair cut. Since you can't cut your own hair, the barber with the bad hair cut must have given the good hair cut to the other barber.

"A boat has a ladder over the side. At low tide, three rungs of the ladder are submerged in water. The rungs are evenly spaced twelve inches apart. As the tide comes in, it causes the water to rise at a rate of 3 inches per hour. In four hours, how many rungs will be submerged?" Answer: 3. As the water rises, so does the boat.

"Because cigars cannot be entirely smoked, a hobo who collects cigar butts can make 1 cigar out of every 5 butts that he finds. Today, he has collected 25 cigar butts. How many cigars can he smoke?" Answer: 6 (not 5). He makes 5 from the 25, then smokes them, and gets 5 more butts, allowing him to make a sixth cigar.

These are just some fairly easy examples that I remembered off the top of my head. However, there are more involved brain teasers that require careful analysis of all the details. These can range from complex algebra to deductive logic, and require a variety of analytic strategies to solve them.

Generally, I find them to be more fun than the standard problems, and they are varied enough to teach a number of different concepts. If you search for "brain teasers" online, you should be able to find a lot of options.

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I'm not sure about brain teasers. My dad loved them and posed them to us a lot, but neither my siblings or I enjoyed them one bit. All of us kids went on to critical thinking career fields, too. –  justkt Sep 4 '13 at 16:35
@justkt When it comes to teaching/learning, I'm strongly of the belief that there's no single "ideal" approach. I enjoyed brain teasers as a child, but not everyone will. Similarly, some people actually enjoy straight algebra problems. However, brain teasers does seem to me like a good match for what the OP is asking for. –  Beofett Sep 4 '13 at 16:47
+1 I always loved brain teasers, and joined Mensa quite young - and the problem solving skillset is 100% related to most of what I have done with my career so far. Visually drawing out a problem doesn't help me at all - although I do it for others who have a visual bent... –  Rory Alsop Sep 4 '13 at 17:02
@Beofett - I don't mean to seem like I'm attacking you or one specific riddle. My point was that many are meant to be entertaining or clever and are not concerned with being 'correct' in any exhaustive or absolute sense. I found many retellings of the 'two barbers riddle' and none of them provided enough details to support the answer. (bigriddles.com/riddle/the-two-barbers) - that's not to say there aren't riddles/puzzles that are more concrete. I just find that a good percentage are more arbitrary than anything else. –  Rob P. Sep 6 '13 at 14:54
@RobP. I agree the quality of brain teasers can vary quite significantly, as can the types of thinking they (supposedly) encourage. I just wanted to clarify that my examples were drawn from distant memory, and weren't intended to be fully representative of complete brain teasers. –  Beofett Sep 6 '13 at 14:58
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I sense a bit of overreaction here, and unbalanced behavior. Please read to the end, and then decide what you will do with the information in this answer.

Your kid is probably a left or a right brainer (as 99% of the people are). Either his brain prefers to think logically, or his brain prefers to experience emotion and he behaves accordingly.

If he is more of the emotional side, you might bring him a bit more in balance by stimulating his analytical thinking. But that would require your emotional feedback. You will have to give him the feeling that what you are doing helps him to become more balanced. Otherwise he feels like what you are trying to teach him is less important than what he prefers: emotion. And that might even make him distant more from your perspective. Which is totally the opposite of your goal: prepare your children to function autonomously.

If he prefers logic more (like you do, so it seems), you are over stimulating him, bringing him further away from balance. Only a balanced mind gives best direction to its own life by setting the right goals.

I would strongly suggest you start 'listening' to your own feelings more, and become more balanced yourself. This balance is passed on to your children naturally. The opposite is true as well, if you are out of balance, you pass that on to your children as well.

EDIT 2: An example of how to listen to your emotion could be like this: How do I feel about all this, putting a topic on the net, asking for help to stimulate the logical problem solving of my kid? I would say that you feel some sort of stress, based on what you say: " really has me feeling an acute need for helping them in this regard." Now if it feels like stress, why doing it? Now I am not asking for an answer that you can give within the blink of an eye. What is your profound motivation? I would say its regret: "I look back regretfully that I did not understand". And thats a negative emotion. Regret isn't constructive. Regret can make you grind to a stop (like in making progress in life). Now it probably isn't that much of a deal for you, it doesn't takes over your life. Now compare regret to motivation that comes from the emotion of love. You see the difference? So do you want to give your children direction based on regret? End of edit 2

If I am correct, and you prefer logic more (you are a programmer so you don't deal much with emotion in your profession), you probably think: "What the ** is this for an answer, this is not what I am looking for".

Your logical side of the brain has to accept that the emotional side is worth 50% of the 100% available decision space to give your life direction. If you THINK otherwise (the logical analyses), you shut the door for the input of your own emotion, and even worse, you naturally, by your unconscious behavior, negate the emotional side of your children. Unconsciously, because this can never be a conscious choice of a well willing parent.

This might seem totally exaggerated, and that is exactly the viewpoint of an unbalanced brain. If you do not think this is exaggerated, than you are probably very open minded or you are in balance (enough) already.

Try to view the value of this answer from the two perspectives (logically and emotionally) as an exercise. If you can't, you have, by definition, a profound preference for either one of the perspectives.

What I like to mention is that I am a professional software developer myself, I have wife and two children.

Whatever you may think of this answer, I sure wish you the best.

EDIT 3: You have used the phrase "so that it doesn't take them another 10-20 years to start seeing things in context.". Thats the focus of a mind that is not in the NOW. A balanced mind isn't busy with the past (regret puts your focus in the past), and isn't busy with future problems. A balanced mind experiences the moment of now with joy. Now I can almost be sure that you think "But you will have to look a head to guide things into the right direction". That is not true. Future problems do not exist, but become problems of the present moment instantly when you start thinking about them. A balanced mind that experiences joy in the moment of now will not run into problems as he makes the right decisions on the moment its necessary. End of edit 3

EDIT: I know I did not gave you an answer on the question where to find material to educate logic and problem solving to your children. That is, because I think your motivation is 'wrong'. If you would have stated it sort of like this, I would have tried to help: My kid tends to get caught up in his feelings, not knowing a way out. His feelings in certain situations aren't what you call 'real' (as defined in reality). For example, when he has a problem, he doesn't know how to solve it. He tries to do other things to make him feel well again, but as long as he can't put it in perspective, he tends to stay stressed. I think he could be helped if he would be able to put his problems in perspective more and work towards a solution by analysis instead. What would be a good training to help him stimulate the logical problem solving more?

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I agree, and additionally I would also point out that even assuming one does want to foster a super-logical brain in one's children, forcing a visualisation of the problem isn't necessarily the best way either - not everyone has a visual learning style, and while for some people that would be great, for others it would make no sense at all. –  Vicky Sep 4 '13 at 9:28
My sarcastic comment had a serious point. Would you like to address it? Your answer contained little useful information, but much vague philosophising and veiled ad-hominem attacks suggesting that anyone who disagrees is "out of balance". Hence the down-vote. –  JamesBradbury Sep 4 '13 at 11:46
@JamesBradbury "Future problems do not exist, but become problems of the present moment instantly when you start thinking about them" - great, I'll cancel my pension payments then! So you consider it a problem as well that you have to eat and drink to give your body energy to move in future events? That you consider your pension payments a problem isn't what defines reality. It defines your way of thinking. –  Mike de Klerk Sep 4 '13 at 12:32
Hmm, my "I agree" comment above was made before edit2 and edit3, which I think have lowered the quality of the answer overall. Just for the record. –  Vicky Sep 4 '13 at 12:33
Please avoid prolonged discussion in comments; comments are intended for clarification and improvement of the answer. If you need to discuss this at length, please take it to Parenting Chat. However, I would advise everyone to tone it down a notch. Insults do not belong here or in chat. –  Beofett Sep 4 '13 at 13:41
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