Designing Effective Projects : Using Knowledge
Problem Solving

Creating Solutions
Problem solving takes place whenever we are confronted with a barrier or challenge to achieving a goal. Problems can be simply solved, such as sharpening a pencil when the tip breaks, or can take years and input from hundreds of experts, such as coming up with a solution to global warming. Problems can have social, cultural, political, and personal dimensions. Some problems may have dozens of good solutions, and some may have only a few poor solutions. What is a serious problem for one person may not be a problem at all for another. In all cases, solving problems is part of learning and part of life.

Knowledge is extremely important for solving problems, because information is the fuel that leads us to success. Anyone can relate to being stuck with a problem, such as a plugged up sink, a screaming child, or a stalled car, knowing that the problem is solvable, but just not having the information needed to solve it.

Facione (1999) describes a list of characteristics of good problem solvers developed by experts in critical thinking. These people show

  • Clarity in stating the question or concern
  • Orderliness in working with complexity
  • Diligence in seeking relevant information
  • Reasonableness in selecting and applying criteria
  • Care in focusing attention on the concern at hand
  • Persistence through difficulties are encountered
  • Precision to the degree permitted by the subject and the circumstances
Wilson, Fernandez, and Hadaway (1993) add that those who are proficient at mathematical problem solving are aware of a variety of processes that they can use and also have the ability to invent new strategies when they encounter unexpected situations.

Problem Solving Processes
Problem solving begins with the identification of a problem. Specifying and describing a problem may be more of a creative process than an analytical one, since this stage requires the ability to see how things could be different. For example, Teri Pall, who invented the cordless phone in 1965, thought that it would be possible to talk on the phone while moving about the house. This took as much imagination as it did technical know-how.

Cognitive processes are also important in problem solving. Anderson and his colleagues (1999) explain how different thinking skills contribute to the resolution of a problem.
  • Comprehension helps learners make a visual representation of the problem.
  • Remembering helps people call up the information and procedures they will need.
  • Synthesis helps them organize the knowledge they have gathered into a structure that will be most useful and efficient.
  • Evaluation is used to decide which methods to use and whether these methods have worked.
  • Metacognitive strategies help problem solvers set goals, make plans, change strategies in mid-stream if they need to, and make decisions about the success of the solution.

Technology and Problem Solving
The use of computer technology as a tool in problem solving has become more widespread as computers have become more sophisticated and available. A variety of types of software help users portray problems graphically. Computer-based communication can provide learners with access to the information they need to produce solutions. It can also place learners in contact with experts who can offer them strategies and encouragement.

Some kinds of computer games can provide learners practice at understanding a problem, finding and organizing necessary information, developing a plan of action, “reasoning, hypothesis-testing and decision making,” and building awareness of different kinds of problem-solving tools (Wegerif, 2002, p. 28).

Wegerif (2002) eloquently describes the role that technology can play in solving problems:

Before the arrival of computers in human history it seemed natural to many to describe ‘higher order thinking’, or rationality, in terms of abstract reason on the model of formal logic or mathematics. This kind of thinking was really hard, potentially very useful and only a few people could do it well. Computers, however, find formal reasoning very easy. What they find hard is the sort of things most people take for granted like coming up creatively with new ways forward in complex, fast-changing and open-ended contexts where there is no certainty of being right. One way in which thinking skills are related to developments in technology is therefore simply that the human skills that we value most, and that are rewarded the most, are those skills that computers cannot yet imitate.


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