Registered problem solvers

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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.



7 thoughts on “Registered problem solvers

  1. As always an excellent and thought-provoking post and your blog posts continue to be a reading highlight for me. Thank you very much for that. With regards to the specifics, I take your points as you present them and generally agree. That said, I would have only drawn the same conclusions from the premises as you present them and while your conclusions flow on logically from this statement “For a general skill of problem-solving to exist, it would need to be something different to the accumulation of specific knowledge.” , I’d question this statement and therefore what flows from that.

    First of all, for a general skill of problem-solving to exist why would it be different from the accumulation of specific knowledge? Quite the opposite, any general skill of problem-solving would have to be based on specific knowledge around the inbuilt and evolved limitations of human decision making as only then would it apply across domains. For example our tendency to defer to the opinion of the highest status person in the room regardless of whose ideas are better, or our tendency to misunderstand probability, or to tie our opinions the most obvious features of a problem regardless of relevance. Any of our evolved limitations in problem-solving be it cognitive or social, do apply across domains because these are common features for all humans as a result of our evolution.

    Following on from that, you suggest that if there were generic skills of problem-solving we would see professions around these. I’d suggest that we probably do (in certain respects) have these professions and precisely for the reasons I outline above. Starting with management consultants, who are called in across orgs, at least part of their common approach is to ask lowest level workers what needs done to improve the performance of the org. Why can’t those in charge cut out the middle people (the consultants) and go straight to that level themselves to solve problems, after all they, not the consultant, are the ones with the domain-specific knowledge? Precisely because of those evolved tendencies towards hierarchy and status behavior that in real-world settings prevent efficient problem-solving. There’s probably at least one other profession this applies to as well.

    Thanks again for your post, massively appreciated and an excellent start to a Sunday morning.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      I think you might be getting the management consultancy scam a bit wrong. Matthew Stewart wrote an entertaining book, ‘The Management Myth: Why the experts keep getting it wrong’. When he was recruited as a consultant, his only qualifications were a doctoral thesis on 19th century German Philosophy and a summer job in a fast-food restaurant. He was taught a spiel about a phony diagnostic algorithm that reminded me of the one I was taught for my summer job selling encyclopedias door-to-door. Stewart argues that senior managers call in consultants just to escape responsibility if things go wrong.

      • Ryan Campbell says:

        Thanks very much for that, reading your comments about the management consultantcy scam though seems to make broadly the same point I am? Namely, that management consultants aren’t actually genuine problem solvers and that instead they act as middle people between the shop floor and the management. The point is that if domain specific problem solving existed distinct from our evolutionary tendencies towards status hierarchies etc we wouldn’t need those middle people (loved your example and will look that book up) Apologies if I was unclear, I was attempting to show that our evolved limitations apply across domains. A strong counter argument would be to show that these eg: availability bias can’t be improved by training.

  2. Love your key messages here and that line I hear you trot out often … there’s only so much we can try to stuff into our working memory at any time … and of course those of our students.

  3. Pingback: PISA 2030 – Filling the pail

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