Critical thinking is possibly the single most important skill a student can learn. The ability to identify problems, analyze situations, apply research, and develop solutions is an invaluable skillset in any career. For as important a skill as it is, critical thinking is often left out of core curriculum. Frequently, students are often taught facts and figures but not how to analyze data and apply knowledge. In other words, students are taught what to think rather than how to think. Fortunately, teachers have the ability to inspire curiosity and critical thinking in their students, both in and out of the classroom.

The development of critical thinking skills is a predictor for student outcomes, higher education retention, and career success. Educators can incorporate activities into their daily lessons that foster research, analytical, and problem-solving skills. TEDEd, PBS Learning, and Edutopia offer lesson plans, media, and other resources to promote critical thinking skills in your students.

One of our ICS partners focuses specific attention on the skills needed to foster critical thinking and teaching students how to think. The Future Problem Solving Program (FPSP) offers opportunities for students to develop critical thinking skills through problem-solving based competitions and curricula. All FPSP components are centered around understanding and solving some of the most pressing international issues, like food waste, criminal justice systems, artificial intelligence, propaganda, and much more. By participating in FPSP, students won’t just learn how to think; they’ll confront and devise solutions to real-world issues that are relevant to their lives and futures. 



Tips from Winning FPSP Coaches

We asked teachers who coached winning teams in the FPSP for their best advice for educators who want to increase their skills in teaching critical thinking and helping their students learn “how to think.” Jill Stone, coach for the Paris Independent School District in Texas, and Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy, coaches for Mount Horeb School District in Wisconsin, shared their tips, tricks, and lessons learned from their winning seasons of the FPSP. Here are the top tips they recommend for other educators:

(1) Get creative in encouraging creative thinking 
“One of our favorite activities [to push “out of the box” thinking] is to have them find a research article about the topic, read it critically, and make notes of possible challenges, key verb phrases, and solutions. We then ask them to take those potential solutions and “tweak” them in a futuristic and creative manner while still having plausibility.” – Jill Stone

“We also work together to brainstorm different topics and ideas as well as sharpen our critical thinking skills with logic puzzles and games, STEM challenges, and SCAMPER.” – Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy.

Note: SCAMPER is a tool to promote creative thinking that stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse.


(2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help
“I would tell those that are new to the competition to not be afraid of reaching out to other affiliate coaches for advice and lesson ideas. Know that it will be time-consuming and frustrating at times.  However, the growth you will see not only in your students but in yourself will be worth every second.”  – Jill Stone

“It takes time to really understand and get to know the process. Practice, practice, practice. The feedback from evaluators is valuable, and spending a lot of time reviewing feedback and applying suggestions and comments is helpful.” – Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy 


(3) Help your students rise to the challenge
“Students are often given information and told exactly what to do in order to get a specific answer. This time there is no specific answer, it is all about the method and the process.  We have had students tell us after graduating that it has given them an advantage as they work with others in a problem-solving environment.” – Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy

“The pandemic was the biggest hurdle to overcome this year. The prospect of travel is of course part of the appeal of the competition. With that off the table, it was all intrinsic motivation. We told them that continuing the competition would strengthen them not only as a student but as a person. A dependable person will keep going and see a commitment through. They rallied like never before. The sense of accomplishment was so much greater and spoke volumes about their character.” – Jill Stone


Any teacher can take this tips and put them to work with their students. Joining the Future Problem Solving Program is one of the best ways to nurture these skills with your students. You can also learn about other competitions on our competitions page to see what academic competitions are coming up. Set up your account to follow competitions that excite you and stay up-to-date on all the news with academic competitions.

Remember that you can also upgrade to a premium account so you can have more tools to track your progress in competitions, get insider information on academic competitions, access the ICS competitions concierge, and gain exclusive discounts on ICS-managed programs.

Dealing with problems is a part of life. People are faced with them every day. Some large, some small. From relatively simple problems like ‘what route do you take to work to get around traffic?’ or ‘How do you fix the copy machine?’ to complex, world-changing problems like global-warming and homelessness, the strength of your problem-solving skill-set can either make or break your career.

Colleges and companies alike are increasingly looking beyond grades, essays, and interview questions to determine who they admit or hire to be a part of their team. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management in 2016 found that employers actually care more about soft skills than they do technical abilities like reading comprehension and mathematics. And the international hiring firm Monster notes that, “you can be the best at what you do, but if your soft skills aren’t cutting it, you’re limiting your chances of career success.”

Monster lists seven critical soft skills that every job applicant should have firmly under their belt to be the most sought after candidate. Chief among these is critical thinking and problem-solving. Companies want to know that you are able to take action when something goes wrong. Companies rely on problem solvers to navigate unexpected challenges.

So how do you demonstrate your problem solving abilities? It has to go beyond just showing good grades. You have to be able to highlight real situations where you have taken it upon yourself to identify and solve hard problems critical to the success of a project.

One of the best ways to do this is through academic competitions. For starters, competitions help to demonstrate that you can learn and grow from your failures. Managing failure itself is critical component to having a successful career in today’s high-tech, fast-paced workforce. We all know that yes, failing sucks, but sometimes you need to fail 100 times before you can identify how to finally succeed!

Additionally, many competitions are specifically designed to help you strengthen your problem-solving mindset, and test your skills in various creative problem solving techniques. The world’s best problem solvers don’t just go about it without a plan. They know how to break down complex problems and get to the core issues. They have tools and skills to help analyze the wide variety of problems they may face.

For those who want to strengthen their problem solving skills there are programs that can help. Specifically, the academic competitions with a direct focus on problem solving can provide a very clear path to creating a rock-solid toolbox of your own so that when your next college or career application comes around, you’ll be ready.

Check out these three competitions to get a start on improving your own problem solving skills for your future!



Modeling the Future Challenge for High School math students

Modeling the Future

The Modelling the Future competition doesn’t ask high school juniors and seniors to come up with an invention that can change the world. Anyone with an imagination can do that. No, it wants them to take a given cutting-edge technology or industry as specified by the competition and describe how it could change the world.

For example, the current topic is autonomous vehicles. The technology has only existed for a couple of years, so the extent to which it can be applied in the transportation industry alone has yet to be realized. The competition wants students to express how autonomous vehicles can affect the transportation industry via mathematical models.

But the competition doesn’t want students to stop with the obvious. It wants to know how they will affect healthcare, the insurance industry, education, our communities in general, etc.

Picture autonomous vehicles as a rock thrown in a pond that creates ripples in the water. The competition wants students to describe those ripples with mathematical models.



Future City CompetitionFuture City Competition

Open to only middle school students (sixth, seventh, and eighth grades), Future City gives some of the brightest young minds in the country a chance to shine.

It all begins with a fundamental, abstract question that can be answered in many different ways—how can we make the world a better place? To answer that question participants are tasked with designing and building a city of the future. They must imagine what a city could look like a century from now and include a solution to a citywide sustainability problem (i.e. storm water management, urban agriculture, green energy, etc.).

Participants will have four months to imagine, design, and build their city. In the end, they will be graded on five deliverables:

  • Virtual city design: using SimCity software they must design their city and present in a slide show how it progressed to the end goal.
  • City Essay: students will have to write a 1500-word essay describing what is unique about their city and how it solves a particular citywide challenge as designated by the competition.
  • City Model: build a scale model of a section of their city using recyclable materials and including at least one moving part.
  • City Presentation: students will give a seven-minute presentation on the unique features of their city and how it solves the citywide challenge.
  • Project Plan: tasks of this magnitude require careful planning, Judges want to see how students planned to stay focused and organized so they could get the project completed.


Future Problem Solving ProgramFuture Problem-Solving Program

The problems facing the world are not unique to any one age group or country. It stands to reason that the solutions for them could come from anywhere in the world and from someone who has yet to realize or express his/her full potential. The Future Problem-Solving Program gives kids of all ages (elementary school, middle school, and high school) from all over the world a chance to do just that.

The competition is broken up into four segments:

Community problem solvers are challenged to take a problematic situation, gather any and all pertinent data related to it to ensure it is understood, analyze it, and develop possible solutions. Part of the challenge is to not only come up with how to solve the problem but to factor in how to implement it.

Those taking part in the Global Issues Problem Solving component will work in teams or as an individual analyzing a series of global topics provided by the competition. They are then tasked with coming up with a six-step problem-solving process. Participants are then challenged to apply their solution in a segment of the competition referred to as ‘Future Scene.’

Scenario Writing and Performance give students an outlet to express their creative side. For Writing, they are asked to write a short story describing the world at least 20 years in the future and how they imagine one of the five topics of the year developing worldwide. Performance asks them to do the same thing, but rather than write a story they tell it in a four to five-minute presentation (no props).