Chapter 7

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Theoretical Introduction – Theory Behind the Scenarios

This chapter will introduce learning theories, methods, concepts and workshop scenarios related to developing critical thinking and problem solving skills in young people as defined by the P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning. The Framework defines the knowledge, skills, and expertise young people should master as critical thinkers and problem solvers to succeed in work and life in the 21st century.

The research underpinning the development of this toolkit identified critical thinking and problem solving as one of the most important skill-sets employers expect young people to have to increase their future employability. In addition to this, we are living in a world where young people have an unprecedented opportunity to create change in their lives, their communities and across the world. New technologies and the democratisation of digital tools have been key drivers accelerating this change.

With the right support, young people can develop as critical thinkers and become changemakers. Critical thinking and problem solving skills equip young people to analyse and evaluate whether the information they are receiving, whether from an individual or organisation, is just, fair and truthful.

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically… Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are many types of projects designed to develop young people’s critical thinking and problem solving skills to empower them to explore topics and issues they care about. Youth media [1], youth as researchers [2] and youth as changemakers [3] are innovative examples of projects that can empower young people to affect change and have an impact on their intended audience.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking can be defined as a mode of reasoning, about any subject, content or problem in which the thinker improves the quality of his / her thinking by skilfully analysing, assessing and reconstructing it [4]. Critical thinking is self-directed self-monitored and self-corrective thinking.
The following, extracted from the P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning, outlines the knowledge and skills young people need to develop to become critical thinkers:

  • Reason effectively
  • Use various types of reasoning (inductive, deductive, etc.) as appropriate to the situation
  • Use systems thinking
  • Analyze how parts of a whole interact with each other to produce overall outcomes in complex systems
  • Make judgments and decisions
  • Effectively analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims, and beliefs
  • Analyze and evaluate major alternative points of view
  • Synthesize and make connections between information and arguments
  • Interpret information and draw conclusions based on the best analysis
  • Reflect critically on learning experiences and processes

What is Problem Solving?

Problem solving can be defined as committing to an action or judgement after evaluating the facts, data or possible learning from a situation [4]. Problem solving is used to develop alternative courses of action that are based on logical assumptions and factual information and that take into consideration resources, constraints, and familiarity with situations.

The following outlines the knowledge and skills young people need to develop to become problem solvers:

  • Solve different kinds of non-familiar problems in both conventional and innovative ways
  • Identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions.

Learning by Doing and Experiential Learning 

Learning by doing and experiential learning are two pedagogical approaches widely used to inform youth work processes and activities. These approaches are informed by two important theories of learning and education; Piaget’s constructivism and Papert’s constructionism [5].

Learning by doing is a methodology used by The Clubhouse Network [6] to facilitate young people to learn to design, create, experiment, explore, inquire and solve problems through technology and project-based learning.

In Creators not Consumers [7], the author Mark Smith discusses experiential learning (learning by doing) in a youth work context and how it is based on three assumptions:

  • People learn best when they are personally involved in the learning experience
  • Knowledge has to be discovered by the individual if it is to have any significant meaning to them or make a difference in their behaviour
  • A person’s commitment to learning is highest when they are free to set their own learning objectives and are able to actively pursue them within a given framework

Introduction to Inquiry Based Learning

Inquiry based learning is a youth centred educational approach driven by young people’s questions, informed by learning theories such as Dewey’s contructivism [8] and Kolb’s experiential learning [9]. Young people are mentored and guided by youth workers and educators to figure out what their ‘true’ questions are – the things they really care about. Youth media projects, such as producing a film, a photostory or radio show offer authentic inquiry experiences for young people. They are required to ask questions of themselves and others in order to seek answers to the topics they are exploring. These topics can often be grassroots, community based issues, or issues related to the needs of young people. They often get to collaborate and work with others in their community. Through this process, young people can discover multiple answers and perspectives on a given topic that they need to analyze, debate and evaluate. This analysis helps them develop new knowledge and draw conclusions that can be shared with others, often to effect change.

This youth-led learning approach differs to formal education where the learning is driven by a defined curriculum, delivered by a teacher for the purpose of assessment [10]. Inquiry based learning is encouraging to young people who may have different needs. The approach allows young people to find their own interests and move at their own pace. The process may appear unstructured, rather, it is just differently structured and can often take more planning, preparation and responsiveness from the youth worker.

Introduction to Create with Purpose

Create with Purpose is a methodology designed for Adobe Youth Voices Program to support youth workers to facilitate a highly intentional approach to making media that is youth-led and purposeful [10].

When youth workers guide young people to Create with Purpose they produce media (such as films, photostories, animations, websites) that are:

  • Relevant – to the youth media makers and the audience
  • Intentional – designed to have a clear impact on an intended audience
  • Personal – expressing a clear point of view or specific perspective
  • Collaborative – youth and educators working side by side
  • Original – evident in style and content
  • Inquiry based – derived and led by youth questions
  • High quality – illustrating the effective use of digital tools and techniques

The challenge for youth workers is to strike a fine balance between being completely hands off during the youth-led Create with Purpose process and telling young people exactly what to do. Always push young people to be original and to make something that truly reflects their interests, needs or issues they care about – to make something that only they can make that reflects their vision and creativity.

When young people create media with a purpose they develop critical thinking and problem solving skills applicable to all walks of their lives; in their education, community and careers.


  1. Youth media developed by the Adobe Foundation and Education Development Center as part of the Adobe Youth Voices Program.
  2. Youth as Researchers developed by the Child and Family Research Centre at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
  3. Youth as Changemakers developed by Ashoka’s Young Changemakers Program for empathy education.
  4. P21 Framework for 21st Century Skills.
  5. Resnick, M. Learning by Designing. MIT Media Lab. Accessed on 20.03.19.
  6. The Clubhouse Network
  7. Smith, M. Creators Not Consumers, Rediscovering Social Education. 1982.
  8. Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books
  9. Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experiences as a source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
  10. The Adobe Youth Voices Program Guide