Problem solving isn’t always obvious
April 26th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

from: kidsaccident.psy.uq.edu.au


As some might notice, I had a friend design a new header for my blog.  Mark maintains his consulting business at www.mokturtle.net.  He designed the header (which is similar to my homepage labanca.net), sent me some files, and then I had to figure out how to upload them and get them working on my WordPress blog.  I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to get it all to work. My problem solving involved several different techniques and cognitive mechanisms (from Wikipedia): 

  • Brainstorming:
  • suggesting a large number of solutions or ideas and combining and developing them until an optimum is found.
  • Lateral thinking: approaching solutions indirectly and creatively.
  • Means-ends analysis: choosing an action at each step to move closer to the goal.
  • Morphological analysis: assessing the output and interactions of an entire system.
  • Research: employing existing ideas or adapting existing solutions to similar problems.
  • Trial-and-error: testing possible solutions until the right one is found.

Often, when some think of problem solving, especially from an educational standpoint it comes down to: 

  • Hypothesis testing: assuming a possible explanation to the problem and trying to prove (or, in some contexts, disprove) the assumption.
This linear method may have applications at times, but doesn’t really allow for the creative potential that is often necessary when solving ill-defined problems:  problems that have more than one possible method of reaching the outcome, or perhaps problems that have more than one acceptable outcome. 

Enter a project that I conducted with my students:  Each student was required to create a short blog post, which had to include a graphic and a self-made media clip (audio or video) about a genetic disorder.  I created a blog (actually two:  here and here), established student accounts, and let them go.  In my usual style, I was intentionally vague so as to not limit the creative potential of the students. 

It was interesting to see that most of the questions I received as the students worked on their projects over the course of  a week were focused on operating the blog platform.  Questions were simple, directed, and easy to provide support. They had to troubleshoot the best ways to make their presentations work.  I think, though, they really could focus on the content without getting bogged down in the idiosyncrasies of technology.

What do I take away?

  1. The tools allow students to focus on content rather than the minutia of form to create attractive products.
  2. Using the tools has its own challenges and allowing students to work through these problems is good problem solving.
  3. Quality of content is still important.  Glitz does not take away understanding.  Just because we made something fancy doens’t mean that we can allow the quality of the concepts to slip.
  4.  In just 4 years since I gave this assignment last, student IT skills have improved tremendously.  I needed to provide very little support for students to make their media components – they know how to do it, and most of them have the tools.  I did loan some digital voice recorders to some, but did NOT have to provide instructions for usage.
  5. Making and editing video has become incredibly easy and there are a wide variety of tools to do it:  webcams, digital cameras, cell phones, video cameras; PC: Movie Maker, MAC: iMOVIE.

Allowing students to be creative producers is critical; these kinds of projects move us in the right direction.

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