Thursday, August 06, 2009

Problem Solving as a Skill

Problem Solving as a Skill

What do you think of when someone uses the term “problem solving?” It’s a very common term for a very common activity. It is so common that we take it for granted. This tendency to take problem solving ability for granted is embedded in various ways in culture, which unfortunately reinforces counter-productive assumptions and attitudes and takes away from our results.

As individuals we tend to believe that we are already good at solving problems, regardless of our actual ability. On the one hand, this is in part because we associate problem solving with thinking, and we assume that thinking is a matter of intelligence. So if we are smart, we must be good thinkers, and good problem solvers. Clearly the large number of very smart people who make surprisingly stupid mistakes quite often argues against that simplistic view.

Conversely, if we don’t consider ourselves smart, we assume we aren’t good thinkers and we don’t bother trying to solve problems better. In that case we often like to say that “common sense” is what is needed. And of course we assume we are loaded with that as well. I would argue that being stupid doesn’t necessarily make us good problem solvers either. So what does make one person better than another at solving problems?

I suggest that we should question every aspect of the common viewpoint that problem solving is just thinking in general and thinking in general is just a matter of being smart. I claim that problem solving is not just thinking in general, it is a very specific kind of thinking that has focus and purpose, and requires us to learn certain specific kinds of skills in order to do it well.

So I claim that thinking is not simply intelligence in action; rather clear thinking consists largely of learnable skills for selecting and using resources. The concept of intelligence is closely associated with problem solving. The driving reason for defining intelligence the way we do is to try to measure the ability to solve problems in general. We aren’t completely wrong in this endeavor, intelligence as commonly measured does play a role in helping us select and use our tools, but it is not itself the tool, and intelligence doesn’t automatically impart the skills for using the tools. Intelligence in important, but we need more.

We all have the basic tools for problem solving, but it takes more skill to use them well than just “common sense” or intelligence. Individual differences are resources for problem solving in different ways. The responsibility for learning to use these resources effectively is in each of us.

In other words, effective problem solving in contemporary situations is not just a natural result of being clever, it is the result of learning and practicing the right skills and habits and learning to use whatever gifts we do have.

Common factors among smart people, such as a self-image of intelligence and a perceived need to protect our reputation can actually prevent us from recognizing our weaknesses. These psychological needs also prevent us from admitting when we make mistakes. They serve as serious obstacles to improving ourselves. There are a number of significant and well-documented obstacles to accurate self-perception that tend to prevent us from being the best problem solvers we can be.

Consider some of these general observations that have often been noted about intelligent people:

· The smarter you are the easier and more tempting it is to use your intelligence to defend your current viewpoint rather than explore the problem further.
· It is easier and more tempting to use intelligence to criticize an idea than to find ways to make it work.
· We tend to use intelligence to operate on information as it is presented to us rather than to envision different alternatives and contexts.
· Intelligence is associated with quick thinking and so intelligent people tend to feel they have to come to closure quickly on a problem to demonstrate their intelligence.
· Intelligence is more closely associated with cleverness than with wisdom.
· The more eloquent you are, the smarter people will assume you are, and the more highly they will tend to regard your arguments.
· We tend to assume that more intelligent people are more likely to be right than less intelligent people.

These kinds of factors are the reason why intelligence so often becomes a trap rather than the aid to problem solving that it should be in theory.

The folks who already consider intelligence and education to be overrated qualities may think themselves immune from this problem. Not so. It is our attitude toward intelligence that is the problem, not intelligence itself. We tend to have similar attitudes toward common sense if we disdain intelligence. Our criteria for what we consider cleverness or eloquence may change in different cultures but we still tend to defend our current viewpoint, criticize ideas, operate on information as presented to us, be more interested in cleverness than wisdom, consider eloquent arguments more highly than less eloquent ones, and assume that clever people are more likely to be right.

The self-image obstacle to better problem solving is made worse by the tradition in education to assume that problem solving is just a matter of using our intelligence, our expertise, and our knowledge in a straightforward way. Schools teach facts and encourage students to accumulate domain-specific knowledge and then test these things in convenient ways through question and answer tests and puzzle solving exercises. I am not arguing against the admirable goals of literacy, factual knowledge, or domain expertise. I am arguing for something else in addition that has generally been neglected; general problem solving skills.

We tend to make a big deal about tests because that seems to be the only way that we can be sure that people are meeting the objectives that we set for performance. Yet tests have limited value since the tests we use for the sake of convenience and standardization rarely if ever measure real world problem solving ability. Even when we do a good job at testing, we generally are at a loss as to what to do when people do poorly. Should we throw money at the problem? Should we change what we teach? Should we change how we are teaching it? Should we change who is teaching it? Is it something about the students themselves?

By testing knowledge, on the one hand, and intelligence on the other, we believe we are truly testing the ability of students to solve problems. So when one set of students seems to be better thinkers than another when tested on realistic problems, we assume they must be exposed to better knowledge or they must be more intelligent. What else could be the difference? What could the students and teachers who are better thinkers and problem solvers be doing differently?

Intelligence, domain expertise and knowledge are certainly useful resources for solving problems but they are not the essence of problem solving ability. How can I say this? What else is left? In short, two things: thinking skills and active learning.

My claim is that effective problem solving is in part the result of a collection of learned skills that do not depend on genius, which do not rely heavily on expertise or knowledge in formal domains like mathematics and science, and which are not just common sense. Domain-specific knowledge and puzzle solving skills in particular subjects are obviously important for specialists in those domains, but real problems also require us to do a lot of upfront work to:
· identify perceptions of the problem,
· place the problem into context,
· clarify the real objectives,
· deal with various kinds of obstacles from people, processes, and things,
· and in general to structure the problem and the information in a way that focuses our problem solving efforts and brings our best abilities to bear.

The other aspect of effective problem solving is active learning: an ongoing process of systematically seeking and accumulating experience that improves your problem solving.

To do these things consistently and well, we have to know a lot about our own pervasive biases and weaknesses as well as our strengths, and this is where we find deep blind spots in human nature.

I suggest that effective problem solving is built from a foundation of domain-general thinking skills for organizing information, directing our attention to the right things, and in general selecting and using the resources we have to their best effect. This means knowing how the human mind works, how human beings are motivated, and how to use this knowledge most effectively to build on our existing strengths and compensate for our weaknesses.

I want to emphasize again that this doesn’t replace domain-specific expertise, knowledge, or intelligence, but it makes better use of these things. So far we have generally put so little emphasis on these thinking skills that we have left an enormous gap between our potential problem solving abilities and our actual ones. That is the gap that I think education most needs to address.


  1. Yes, yes, 1000 times yes! We can teach better thinking by identifying the deliberate "steps" of effective thinking, such as recognizing contextual factors and the other elements you identify. What we often lack in education is this "step-by-step" approach. We say we teach critical thinking by asking students many questions. However, unless we teach them how to think through the questions we ask, their answers will be based on their own, unrecognized biases rather than critical thought. This is an excellent post—thoughts that need wide attention!

  2. Well said. If there is a simple way to describe it i would say, to become wellrounded and to establish a growth mindset, that it's always about learning and growing.

  3. Thanks very much for your thoughts!

    I'd like to develop these ideas further if it makes sense.

    There are also a handful of authors and experts I've come across who seem to be exemplary at this kind of approach, and it would be great for some of their ideas to be better appreciated.

    In particular, I'm thinking of specific areas like the domain-general problem structuring skills, skills for effective visual display of information, understanding of how advocacy and inquiry differ and where each is best applied, and practical causal analysis and decision making skills. Also, the extant research on expertise aquisition in general contains principles that seem to be under-appreciated in a lot of places.

    To me that needs to be reinforced by an emphasis on metacognitive skills for ongoing growth. Even if the classroom is an effective learning environment, if people don't know how to teach themselves, they stop growing when they leave the classroom.

    A lot of the value I bring to clients in consulting involves my application of these ideas to real problems.

    I find that these things often turn out to be as valuable in helping me solve complex problems as my specific technology expertise, and sometimes they are even more valuable. Not that I want to make my profession obsolete, but what I do would work even better if my clients were also versed in the kinds of thinking processes I use to solve problems for them.

    Especially, "collaboration" and group problem solving at its best involves skills like these, not just sharing information, if it is to become a real force and not just a buzzword.