The Problem with Problem-Solving

Everyone, it seems, is talking about problem-solving these days. The subtext is nearly always that business and industry needs problem-solvers more than ever because …well, the 21st century and climate change and stuff. There wasn’t much of a need for problem-solving back in the good old 20th century. The “factory model” of education was fine then because nothing much happened in the 20th century and when it did, it happened at a snail’s pace. Apparently.

So what we need to do now is transform our education system and put far more emphasis on actually teaching problem-solving, not to mention creativity, critical thinking and other 21st century skills, including soft skills like empathy. These were not so important in the 20th century because we had very few problems back then that required creative solutions.

So how do we inculcate these 21st century skills in our students?

One way is to have actual modules devoted to these skills: Problem Solving: an active learning approach; Being Creative with Minecraft; Critical Thinking for the 21st Century. Then we could develop more focused modules like: Problem Solving: Climate Change; Creativity and Brexit; Critical Thinking with Lego Robots.

Sadly, none of these approaches actually work. Attempting to develop so-called 21st skills through generic approaches or through challenging students with problems about which they know very little is making the same mistake that has been made over and over in the world of education. It might provide an engaging experience for students but as Robert Coe famous said, “Engagement is a poor proxy for learning”.

The basic assumption in a lot of modern thinking about education, namely that we don’t currently teach  21st century skills, is completely wrong. As an engineer, everything I do in my teaching is aimed at developing problem-solving skills. But it’s problem-solving in a chemical engineering context. My colleagues in the School of Law and Government teach problem-solving all the time. You don’t work as a lawyer without being able to solve highly complex legal problems. Colleagues in our Business School teach problem-solving in accounting, economics, and in human resources management. Even the extraction of meaning from a poem can be considered as an exercise in problem solving.

The key aspect of all of these examples is that the ability to solve a problem is hugely dependent on what the problem is. The best tools you can have if you want to be able to solve problems is to have relevant knowledge, lots of prior practice of solving problems in your field, and probably some personal attributes like conscientiousness and tenacity.

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