What Fifth-Graders Can Teach Us About Problem-Solving

Fifth-graders are direct, and are genuinely keen to understand their peers rather than criticizing them. We can learn a lot from them.

What Fifth-Graders Can Teach Us About Problem-Solving
[Photo: Flickr user Boston Public Library]

“Have you ever invented anything for people who have nothing?” a fifth-grader asked me at the end of my presentation on how to design new businesses. Half-touched, and half-surprised by the probing question, I choked as I offered an answer to my audience, the elementary school students of P.S. 56 in Brooklyn.


It was my first day as one of the mentors who participated in Big Idea Week in May. Schools in Brooklyn and Queens had invited product people from New York-based tech shops–including General Assembly, Etsy, Facebook, and Pensa–to coach their students on entrepreneurship and problem-solving. As an instructor at General Assembly who routinely teaches product management to grown-ups, I hadn’t expected to learn a lot about my craft.

It was no surprise that the little inventors crushed it. The pods of tiny entrepreneurs chose problems of our world, and for a week, they tinkered with concepts to obliterate them with guidance from their teachers and assigned mentors. The week closed with the mentees pitching their inventions with pricing strategies and competitor analyses for critique.

This program is the brainchild of Alex Rappaport, CEO and cofounder of Flocabulary, a Brooklyn-based education firm. The Big Idea Week launched in 2013 in partnership with the Dumbo Improvement District as a way to engage local tech shops with their community on a yearly basis. This year it kicked off on May 4, or Star Wars Day, where the force was strong with the little ones.

Do you need a fresh angle on an intractable problem? Look at your mystery from a child’s vantage point by trying these new rules:

1. You’re Off To A Decent Start With A Little Information And A Lot Of Imagination

Rhetoric on taking a data-driven approach to everything is at a fever pitch. Designers must research the needs of their potential customers. Entrepreneurs are advised to place smart bets by harnessing the power of big data. Leaders are encouraged to find ways to test the market’s appetite for their services before making big investments. With two degrees in statistics, I am a passionate advocate of this mindset.

Still, as the 10-year-olds pitched solutions to complicated problems, I was reminded of the power of uncensored imagination.


“Have you ever waited in a doctor’s office for hours for an answer to a simple question?” asked a member of a team that had set out to tackle the quirks of health care. She added: “Our product is like a personal doctor in your pocket.” Their proposed app helped people take care of themselves by promptly answering urgent queries about their health.

These kids hadn’t stumbled on their concept while wading through volumes of information. They didn’t start with an analysis of the cost of unwarranted emergency room visits on the health care system. Nor did they study the trends on the growing shortage of primary-care physicians at the root of limited access to them. Chances are, one of these young creators was bored while waiting at their pediatrician’s office and imagined her way out of it. It’s not a bad place to start.

Photo: Flickr user Boston Public Library

2. “I Don’t Know” Is A Cop Out

The pocket doctor impressed me, but I was there to push students to think critically. Therefore, I channeled a Shark Tank-like persona and asked, “Do you think real doctors will see your product as a friend or an enemy?” They looked quizzically at each other. I had stumped them. Did they admit it? Of course not.

A girl clad in a crisp white shirt and navy pants grabbed the microphone and cooked up an answer on the fly. “The doctors should see it as a friend,” she explained, adding, “because our app can’t cure illnesses.” She went on to clarify that their avatar of a medical professional will ask an individual to seek treatment when needed. In addition, since their product would “know everything about the patient,” it could save time at the front office by filling out forms.

The authors of Think Like A Freak have a chapter dedicated to the importance of saying “I don’t know.” The duo argues that candid declarations about your lack of knowledge are a necessary first step toward a breakthrough. Even those of us who embrace this notion may be failing in its execution.

At the end of the week, as the children pitched their big ideas to the panel of mentors, not one kid uttered those three words in response to our queries. On the contrary, in trying to bluff their way out of unexpected questions they came up with not only some duds, but also some hits. There is a middle ground between admitting ignorance and feigning knowledge.


Some adults are too quick to say, “I don’t know,” which strikes me as a cop out. The statement shouldn’t be used as a period to end a conversation, but should serve as a comma. In other words, don’t use it to shut down a discussion. Instead, use it as a way to open up a dialogue on how you may crack the puzzle.

3. Seek To Clarify Before You Criticize

Children are notorious for being direct without care for how the words that fly out of them land. So I cringed when hands went up after the first group finished their presentation. But the crowd was in no hurry to point out faults; instead, they had a bias for seeking clarifications. “What happens if . . .” or “How about . . . ” were typical lines of questioning.

They were more keen to understand their peers than to criticize them. This had an interesting effect. When probed, the presenters surprised us with nuances we missed. In other cases, their friendly sparring resulted in an improved version of a product. “We’ll upgrade our app to give you this feature,” said one group at the end of their back and forth.

This approach to problem-solving isn’t novel. Seeing it in action, however, was a reminder of how to collaboratively brainstorm and produce results. The grown-ups like answers, while children love questions. We adults are also sneaky. We offer answers disguised as queries: “Don’t you think this is a bad idea?” or “Why didn’t you do X?” We would benefit a great deal by behaving like the younger version of us that was genuinely curious.

Natasha Awasthi is a business designer who untangles messy problems by discovering unexpected patterns–in behavior, processes, and technology. A self-proclaimed Jedi-in-training, she writes not only about business, but also about embracing her creativity and bungling the art of channeling the force. Find her on Twitter at natashaawasthi or email her here.