4 – The Problem Solver Algorithm

The Problem-Solver (Meaningful Output)
After part one of the John Wooden story, we can do a speaking activity. Nation (2013) recommends the problem-solver, and after making and doing many problem-solvers myself, I can strongly recommend the activity because it is genuinely algorithmic. With problem-solvers we use clear principles, which can generate an unlimited number of outcome-oriented conversations based on different meaningful themes.

According to Nation, three basic problem-solver outcomes are (A) suggest, (B) choose, and (C) rank. These outcomes serve as our algorithmic rules for generating communicative activities. Now we need a problem to solve, which is related to our theme. The theme is sports and is related to coaching, exercise, discipline, and personal development.

We can easily imagine a health problem for a person who doesn’t get enough exercise. We tell the students, “Jim has a problem. Doesn’t get enough exercise. (Step 1) In your groups, suggest 5 different kinds of exercise for Jim. Groups can write down their suggestions in any order on their whiteboards.

As students work in groups, the teacher can observe and support. A more advanced student might say, “I suggest that he goes for a walk every day after lunch. That’s really healthy.” But a lower student might say, “Running!” Both contributions are good and add to the conversation.

After each group has written down their 5 suggestions, they can do (Step 2) choosing one exercise from the list. The teacher can say, “Now that you have your list, as a group choose the best one for Jim.”

Next students can do (Step 3), ranking. For example: “For Step 3, rank the exercises from easiest to hardest. Okay? What’s the hardest? That’s #1. What’s the easiest? That’s number #5.” Students can also rank the exercise based on most enjoyable, least enjoyable, most effective, and least effective. As students solve the problem of ranking, they will tend to use their native language, so the teacher needs to roam and support, helping students find ways to solve the ranking problem in English. (See below.)

After students have suggested, chosen, and ranked their ideas, the teacher can ask groups to share their answers with the whole class. Here is the summary of our problem solver:

  1. Suggest 5 solutions to the problem: What are some good exercises for Jim?
  2. Choose the best solution: In your group, decide which exercises is best for Jim.
  3. Rank the solutions: Which exercise is hardest? That’s #1. Which is easiest? That’s #5.
  4. Share your best choice solution, and share your rankings with the class.

The problem-solver works. But students may want to use their native language during the activity. If students use their native language, it’s a good sign because they are motivated to communicate, but we can also support them by teaching them these kinds of questions, which are good for problem-solvers.  

Scaffolding Questions for Problem Solvers

  1. I suggest X.
  2. What about X?
  3. X solves the problem.
  4. We should choose X to solve the problem.
  5. X is #1. Y is #2, etc.


Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.