Unit 2
Problem Solving

The problems we perceive in the world, including many of those we experience firsthand, exist because certain conditions cause them to happen directly or enable them to occur indirectly. Sometimes those conditions result from other conditions or even long chains of interacting circumstances. Although not every problem is preventable or solvable, understanding the root causes of a problem is essential for developing effective, long-term solutions. In this unit, students will learn to assess problems and differentiate between symptoms and root causes. They will learn about the importance of understanding the true nature of a problem, the risk of unintended consequences when designing solutions, and why some past attempts at problem solving have failed. Through the activities in this unit, students will practice critical thinking, the scientific method, and deductive reasoning skills.

Grade LevelSubjectsSkills
6-12Social Studies
General science
Language Arts
Interviewing and note taking
Deductive reasoning

Essential Questions

  • How do symptoms differ from root causes?
  • Why is it important to understand the root causes of problems?
  • How does our understanding of root causes help us to create effective solutions?
  • What is meant by unintended consequences, and what can be done to avoid them?

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • Define symptom, problem, root cause, unintended consequence, solution
  • Use deductive reasoning to differentiate between symptoms and root causes
  • Apply a process of critical inquiry to problems they encounter in order to identify root causes
  • Apply the scientific method to form and test hypotheses about problems and solutions

Common Core Standards Addressed

  • Reading Standards for Informational Text: Grades 6-12
    • Key Ideas and Details
      • Citing textual evidence
      • Determining a central idea
      • Analyzing in detail
    • Craft and Structure
      • Determine an author’s point of view
    • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
      • Integrate information presented in different media formats
      • Trace and evaluate arguments and specific claims
  • Writing Standards: Grades 6-12
    • Text Types and Purposes
      • Writing arguments with to support claims with specific evidence
      • Write informative/explanatory texts
    • Production and Distribution of Writing
      • Produce clear and coherent writing
      • Use technology, including the internet, to produce and publish writing
  • Speaking and Listening Standards: Grades 6-12
    • Comprehension and Collaboration
      • Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions
      • Interpret information presented in diverse formats
    • Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
      • Present claims and findings
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects: Grades 6-12
    • Key Ideas and Details
      • Cite specific textual evidence
      • Determine central ideas
      • Identify Key Steps
    • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
      • Integrate visual information with other information
      • Distinguish between fact, opinion and reasoned judgment

Supplemental Resources
Steps of the Scientific Method
Writing a News Article


Students will study the example of allergies to familiarize themselves with the differences between symptoms and root causes. They will investigate how different approaches to treatment address different facets of the problem.

Time: 40 minutes
Materials: Internet access; online access to or printed copies of Allergies: Symptoms vs. Root Causes worksheet (Resource 2.1 in Appendix 2); paper/pen or computer for completing assignment.

  1. Have students locate information about allergies on the web. You may choose to allow them to search on their own, or direct them to a common resource, such as www.webmd.com/allergies.
  2. As students are reading through the materials they find online, have them complete the Allergies: Symptoms vs. Root Causes worksheet (Resource 2.1 in Appendix 2).

Students will practice recognizing and distinguishing symptoms from root causes for common household problems. They will also learn about how symptoms can be problems in themselves, leading to other undesirable circumstances. This activity takes students through a process based on the scientific method.

Time: 40 minutes
Materials: Internet access; online access to or printed copies of Assessing Problems for Effective Solutions (Resource 2.2 in Appendix 2); paper/pen for completing assignment.

  1. As a class, brainstorm some common solvable problems that students or their parents might experience. Examples include: ants in the house, wilting plants in the yard, a dead car battery, poor grades, no lights when flipping the switch, leaky faucet, etc.
  2. Choose one problem to go over as a class, and work together to answer the questions on the Assessing Problems for Effective Solutions worksheet (Resource 2.2 in Appendix 2).
  3. Have students work on their own or in pairs to assess another problem using the questions on the Assessing Problems for Effective Solutions worksheet (Resource 2.2 in Appendix 2), writing out their answers on a separate sheet of paper to turn in at the end of class.
  4. Invite students to share their findings with the rest of the class. All groups should turn in a completed problem assessment sheet to demonstrate their comprehension of the process.

Students will learn about unintended consequences—both positive and negative. They will appreciate the potential dangers of addressing problems without fully understanding both the root causes and the possible ripple effects of a solution itself.

Time: 90 minutes
Materials: Internet access, computer, large monitor or projector; online access to or printed copies of Introducing Unintended Consequences (Resource 2.3 in Appendix 2) and Real Life Unintended Consequences (Resource 2.4 in Appendix 2); internet access and pen/paper or computer for completing short report.

Introduce the concept of unintended consequences by having students view a short video about what happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Both the video and the explanation of the phenomenon in Yellowstone can be found at: http://www.yellowstonepark.com/wolf-reintroduction-changes-ecosystem/

  1. Define the Law of Unintended Consequences and explain the three categories of unintended consequences using the information provided on the Introducing Unintended Consequences handout (Resource 2.3 in Appendix 2).
  2. Have students read and assess the scenarios outlined in the Real Life Unintended Consequences worksheet (Resource 2.4 in Appendix 2).
  3. Assign a short report on a subject or event that exemplifies an unintended consequence. An Internet search for “unintended consequence,” “perverse incentive,” or “accidental discovery” will yield numerous options from which students can choose.

Students will link their understanding of problem solving thus far to ideas presented in the Billions in Change film. This activity will draw on the list of problems created in Unit 1 and is intended to stimulate students’ understanding of causal models, the perpetuating cycles that define many issues, and the effectiveness of some interventions over others at helping to alleviate global problems. The exercise may challenge existing beliefs and assumptions about the causes of social and environmental problems.

Time: 120 minutes (can be done over 2-3 days)
Materials: Original board with problems written on sticky notes; blank sticky notes (3-in x 3-in); butcher paper. A Smartboard can be used if available.

  1. Reintroduce the list of sticky-note problems created by the class during the Building Background Knowledge activity from Unit 1.
  2. Prompt students to recall the three fundamental issues (clean water, renewable energy, and preventative healthcare) highlighted in the Billions in Change film.
  3. As a class, cluster the sticky notes under the headings Water, Energy, and Health, based on whether the problem stems from a deficit in one of those areas. If a problem exists because of an overlap between two areas, have students choose which they think is the stronger cause. For problems that seem outside the three areas, they may create an Other category.
  4. Allow students to work in groups and assign each group 4-5 problems from the board. (It’s easiest if the problems assigned to a given group stem from the same category). You may provide the actual sticky notes so that the groups can arrange the problems in different configurations, or they can write the problems on new sticky notes. Each group should have a sheet of butcher paper on which to work.
  5. Instruct each group to discuss and then agree upon how their 4-5 problems relate to one another and stem from the overarching category of water, energy, or health. That is, which problems seem to be causing other problems, which are consequences of problems, which are consequences of solutions (e.g., unintended consequences), and which are unrelated? Is there a root cause?
  6. Have each group create a path diagram (or sequencing graphic organizer) to illustrate the causal relationships among their 4-5 problems. They should arrange their sticky notes in a fashion that allows them to use hand-drawn arrows to show those relationships. For example, contaminated water → poor health → inability to work → poverty → hunger → poor health. Or, lack of electricity → inability to study at night → poorly educated → inability to find good work → poverty → crime. The diagrams need not be linear. They may intersect with one another, they may look like branched trees, or they involve self-reinforcing circles.
  7. Instruct each group to consider solution interventions at different points within their path diagrams, and to evaluate whether or not those would be effective and why.
  8. Have each group decide on the best possible strategy for solving the problems in their model. Have them consider the following questions:
    1. Does one intervention need to happen first in order for the others to be effective?
    2. Do certain interventions need to happen simultaneously?
    3. What types of unintended consequences should be anticipated based on the solutions chosen?
    4. What resources would be needed to solve these problems?
    5. How much time will be required?
    6. Who needs to be involved in these solutions? The government? Businesses? Ordinary citizens?
  9. Invite groups to present their models to the rest of the class, highlighting the relationships they found among their problems, describing the interventions they chose, and what they believe would be the most effective strategy for eliminating the largest number of problems in their model. Students may choose to present using poster boards, PowerPoint, Prezi, or another creative format.

Students will interview a parent or other adult about a problem they encountered at home or work, and their experience solving that problem. Students will ask questions and follow-up questions, take notes, and write up the interview as though they are a reporter writing a news article. Students not yet familiar with journalistic style may benefit from one or more of the lessons in the Writing a News Article unit offered by abcteach.

Time: 90 minutes (outside of class)

Instruct students to interview a parent or other adult about a problem they once faced at home or work. Provide students with the Problem Solving Interview Guide (Resource 2.5 in Appendix 2), which they may use to craft their questions. Students should take detailed notes, but may also choose to record the interview if given permission by their interviewee. Inform students that they will be writing up their interview in the form of a news report.

  1. Assign students the task of filling out the Elements of a News Article table (Resource 2.6 in Appendix 2) based on the information gathered in their interviews.
  2. Have students write up their interviews in the form of a news article, making sure to include the 5 W’s (who, what, when, where, why) and including the important elements and structure of a news report.