I’m trying to solve a problem. When is it that we become good at solving problems and how the devil do we learn to problem solve?
Had you asked me the aforementioned questions a couple of years ago, I would’ve said that you can teach anybody the ability to problem solve, by… well getting learners solving problems.
I once taught Functional Skills Maths for a year and honestly thought I had it nailed, giving the learners really applicable and functional problems to solve in each lesson. Results weren’t bad, but my current line of thinking is that I was probably doing them a disservice.
The thing is, I have realised that to solve problems, and I mean really be able to solve them, without ‘googling’ it, you need to have a core knowledge of the subject in question. For instance, if you presented me with your diet plan and asked me why you weren’t losing weight, my sports science background would allow me to critically analyse the problem in order to come up with a solution (I hope). If however, you asked me to look at your car because it had broken down, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. I can just about check the oil level on my car. In other words, I don’t have the core knowledge needed to solve problems in automotive based problems.
Going back to my ‘amazing’ Functional Skills Maths lessons, the reason they were doing functional maths was because they’d either failed or not attempted their GCSE maths at school. This indicates a shortfall in their core maths knowledge. Why then did I not bridge the gap by giving them this knowledge, rather than getting them to solve problems, problems that actually required knowledge that they hadn’t got?
Perhaps there are ways to approach problems in better ways and perhaps this can be taught, but the fundamental ‘thing’ needed to solve problems is knowledge about a subject. In his book, ‘Why Students Don’t Like School’, Dan Willingham asserts that any form of critical thinking requires background knowledge. He goes on to suggest that a long term memory full of factual information gives the working memory more capacity to solve problems, because it is not consumed by trying to understand the problem. My own experience corroborates this assertion. Learners spend much of their time trying to decipher the problem (in the case of Functional maths), as opposed solving it, therefore, I ask, do we need to stop thinking so much about the skills and more about the knowledge in our day-to-day practice?
In answer to my initial problem. I think I’ve just about got the knowledge to answer.