Problem-solving does not exist

There is no such thing as a general skill of problem solving, above and beyond the strategies that we all possess and therefore do not need to be taught. Schools certainly can teach students how to solve specific kinds of problems. Schools can also teach useful heuristics for solving larger classes of problems but these seem to become less useful the wider the class of problems they are intended to solve.

The idea that general problem-solving cannot be taught may seem surprising for two reasons. Firstly, we have the term ‘problem-solving’ that implies one kind of thing. The spirit of problem-solving is also conjured into being in many curriculum documents and by countless education gurus. We are told that, in the future, the ‘skill’ of problem-solving will be more important than knowing particular content knowledge (even though it is specific content knowledge that is needed to solve specific problems).

It is worth being aware that this view comes down to us from the tradition of progressive education. Problem-solving is a key component of this tradition, taking it’s cue from the ideology of pragmatism. It is no coincidence that John Dewey was a leading pragmatist as well as a founder of the progressive education movement.

If you believe that problem-solving can be taught then the progressive view makes a lot of sense. Why not endow students with a skill that can be applied in almost any situation? What could be a more pragmatic aim for education? What could have more practical use?

The difficulty for those who advocate problem-solving is that there is no body of evidence that such a general skill can be taught. Such evidence would need to show that problem-solving is transferable; that improvements in problem-solving in one area lead to improvements in another. And it should come from randomised controlled trials so that we can be sure the improvement was down to problem-solving alone. I was reminded of this when reading a recent paper that showed that learning computer programming had no impact on students’ problem-solving skills in mathematics. This was despite the study having the sort of non-random design that might be expected to produce a positive result.

So why are we in this situation? Why are teachers constantly being urged to do something that is impossible?

The answer is that generic problem-solving is part of an ideology that has gripped large sections of the education community. Most of those who are in this grip are unaware of it and react pretty badly when the ideology is named or highlighted. This is because everyone likes to think that they have come to their own decisions in light of evidence and reason. People prefer to view themselves as measured and grounded, not prone to intellectual fancies.

But we are. All of us. I am starting to think this is part of our nature. We pick up thoughtworlds from those around us as a way of ensuring social cohesion. We don’t necessarily have to read John Dewey to be unwitting disciples of his philosophy. It just gets into the air. And the only way to fix this is to place the evidence in front teachers before they invest so much of their ego and professional standing in problem-solving or whatever else it is that they can no longer contemplate the possibility of being wrong.

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8 Comments on “Problem-solving does not exist”

  1. Chester Draws says:

    Rather than teach “problem solving” why don’t we just teach everyone to be clever?

    And while we are at it, why not teach them to be thoughtful and well spoken as well?

    It seems ridiculous to teach everyone to be clever. Yet teaching generic problem solving is just fine.

  2. Your last paragraph makes a very important point. I have observed precisely this phenomenon – people too heavily invested in Whole Language beliefs about teaching reading to be open to the evidence – over the years that I’ve closely followed the phonics debate.

    I agree that it is human nature, and it’s well-analyzed by psychologist Carol Tavris in her book ‘Mistakes were made but not by me’. She argues that the problem is at its worst in the helping professions – because admitting you’ve been wrong means admitting you’ve let down the very people you’ve been trying to help.

    It’s why I think that the only way to fix this (apart from waiting for generations for gradual change) is to reform teacher training.

  3. Mike says:

    On this topic Greg, you might enjoy getting your teeth into this story:

    http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/thousands-of-year-11-students-to-sit-new-critical-thinking-test-20170728-gxkojb.html

    Our new education czar here in NSW (whose only previous experience in education, as far as I know, was a stint as chief political staffer to one of the worst education ministers we’ve had) is coming up with a whole bunch of daft statements about critical thinking, problem-solving, higher-order thinking, etc., etc. at the moment, mixed in with the usual purported clairvoyance about the jobs of the future.

    …We don’t necessarily have to read John Dewey to be unwitting disciples of his philosophy. It just gets into the air….

    Very true. Keynes’s famous statement about being slaves to some defunct economist comes to mind.

  4. Problem solving, has to be a gradual process, it will take years and years, all the efforts can go vain, but, all of it is a part of the entire process

  5. harrysblakey says:

    Perhaps Greg is being unfair here. Maybe he is mistaken and problem solving can be taught. How would we know? Well you would want a test of generic problem solving skills. Anyone suggesting generic problem solving can be taught should ace such a test. Such a test would need to cover a wide range of disciplines:
    Here are my suggestions to start it off – does anyone have others. Because mathematics is a generic subject with no reliance on other knowledge my first three are math problems.

    1. Provide three proofs of Pythagoras theorem.
    2. Prove that the square root of 11 is irrational.
    3. Prove the fundamental theorem of calculus.
    4. In 300 words provide an argument that would convince Greg Ashman he is wrong about problem solving.

  6. Tunya Audain says:

    Desperately Seeking Evidence-based Practice In Education

    There are at least two reasons why we should study the Whole-language experience if evidence-based education practice is a goal.

    ONE
    Dress-Rehearsal: The entire, long, frustrating experience of how this now generally discredited method was initiated and sustained can be seen as dress rehearsal for the fads and untested methods being thrust upon us now. There is considerable literature on this topic, though unfortunately, few confessions by those largely responsible for the error of their ways. This would add considerably to the insights needed to understand how these movements gain traction and overcome opposition. For those opposing some of these new methods for the 21st Century the insights from this study would be enormously beneficial. Is there, maybe, such a book or article already?

    TWO
    Characteristics of the Followers: Not everyone falls for the latest trends and fancies in education. But, during the Whole-Language debates Patrick Groff (1924-2014) did identify six such characteristics:

    “The Special Attractions of Whole-Language (WL)
    1 . . . educators historically have been notorious for their inability to resist the lures of educational innovations, regardless of whether or not they have been empirically validated.
    2 . . . WL relieves educators of much direct personal accountability for the results . . .
    3 . . . WL appeals to many educators’ romantic and/or humanistic interpretations of what is healthy child development . . . honoring children’s freedom and dignity is held to be more essential than how literate they become.
    4 . . . in the past, educators have ignored or rejected most of the empirical findings in practically all aspects of their field of endeavor.
    5 . . .the apparent simplicity of WL is alluring for teachers . . . With WL, teachers do not have to submit to pedagogical discipline that a prescribed course of direct and systematic instruction demands.
    6 . . . educators who have liberal social, economic, and political views doubtless are charmed by WL’s decidedly left-wing agenda . . . ”

    I will find a link for this Groff article and post it later in case current teachers might be seeking ways not to fall for the enticements placed in their way.

  7. “We don’t necessarily have to read John Dewey to be unwitting disciples of his philosophy.”
    I think one should read Dewey (and Rousseau and others). If you don’t, you will be rather an unwitting disciple of whatever “Zeitgeist” that does distort the ideas (regarding certain probolems they encountered) of such thinkers.

    Dewey (and Rousseau, in some way) did of course promote “problem-soving” – he thought about a generic model of “thinking”, but as far as I know never advocated for teaching problem-solving as a generic skill, rather was keen on making pupils work and be taught regarding the concrete subject-bound ways of “solving” (or thinking about) problems.

    Or do you have other evidence regarding Deweys own ideas? I think an aweful big problem in education is the “adoption” of notions from other disciplines, usually without really reading the sources and understanding the concrete context and critical limitations of such notions.

  8. Tunya Audain says:

    Desperately Seeking Evidence-based Practice In Education – Supplementary

    I said I would provide the link to the full article by Patrick Groff — http://www.readinghorizons.com/research/whole-language-vs-phonics-instruction#special

    His more complete article on Whole-Language and how it spread is worth reading for those who are interested in how shaky theories in education proliferate. By going to the link above there is a “click” provided at the bottom for his fuller article plus more from a Journal in 1997 concerned about language and spelling.

    I know this post by Greg is about problem-solving as a shaky theory, but generally it’s also about how the education field seems to glom onto unproven fads so easily. There’s a lot of that going on right now. It’s important to call out these questionable practices, and Greg does a fine job of it, but is there hope to squelch bad practices?

    Self-esteem was a huge phenomenon pushed in the schools in the last decades. Is current exposure, calling it a “con” or “hoax”, going to sway anyone? See: http://www.educationviews.org/it-quasi-religious-great-self-esteem-con/
    and http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/06/21/why-are-schools-still-peddling-the-self-esteem.html


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