Embed from Getty Images
The clock ticked in the waiting room. The clients sat quietly. Most were scrolling through mobile phones. Some just sat and stared blankly into the middle distance.
Tick, tick, tick, went the clock.
Ms Jackson had a blocked drain. Mr Ahmed wanted to know the best investment plan to help him support his children if they decided to go to university. Ms Peters had recently moved to the city and was finding it hard to break into the tight-knit friendship groups she encountered.
The sign on the consulting room door read, “K. Solomon: Registered Problem Solver.” It creaked open. A young woman appeared. She turned back to talk to someone inside, “Thank you, Dr. Solomon,” she said before turning and striding confidently across and out of the waiting room.
Then, a kindly face appeared. Dr Solomon wore an open neck shirt and a broad smile. “Mr Ahmed?” he asked.
There is no such thing as a registered problem solver. The closest to it is probably the Citizen’s Advice Bureau charity. However, if you visited a Citizen’s Advice Bureau, they would be unlikely to be able to help you with your blocked drain unless it was part of some legal or consumer dispute.
There are plenty of experts who we can consult. There are family doctors, solicitors, accountants and so on. However, each of these has a carefully delineated field of expertise, with the professional associations that provide accreditation for each of these occupations taking a great interest in defining this field and ensuring practitioners have the required knowledge.
However, if problem solving were a general skill as the Australian Curriculum suggests, we should expect to see experts in this skill offering their services to the public. Those with superior general problem solving skills would presumably be able to make a good living by offering a problem solving service. We do not see this.
For a general skill of problem solving to exist, it would need to be something different to the accumulation of specific knowledge. Presumably, a skilled problem solver would not need to begin with any specific knowledge about a given situation because they could gain all the knowledge they need from secondary sources such as books, interviews and the ubiquitous internet. In fact, the rise of the all-knowing internet from the mid 1990s onwards should perhaps have corresponded to an explosion in people offering generic problem solving services.
Why has this not happened?
Because this logic is built upon a misunderstanding of the role of knowledge in the human mind. Knowledge does not sit in a set of filing cabinets, waiting to be consulted when a skill is activated. A better picture of long term memory is a tool shed. Knowledge is what you think with. We can only process about four items in our working memory at the same time, but one of these items can be an entire connected web of ideas held in long term memory known as a ‘schema’.
You cannot think with knowledge that is stored in secondary sources and, in fact, as you try to make use of knowledge from secondary sources, you will encounter working memory limits.
This is why registered problem solvers do not exist and why those who solve problems in specific fields need to acquire a large body of knowledge in order to be able to do so.