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.