Solutions: A Guide to Problem Solving

[01 Jan 2005]

Review: Paperback
This book is about general problem solving (‘in real life’) but it could have applications in Problem Based Learning as used in educational institutions. It gives some good suggestions about identifying the problem and deciding what should be happening when the problem is solved. Then we assess the situation and look at causes and resources for fixing the problem. Finally, solution proposals are discussed and implementation is considered.

This may sound like statements of the obvious, but very few people follow a logical pathway to solving problems.

I agree with the author’s statement (p. 1), explaining the paralysis that a lot of people (and governments) experience when confronted with a crisis:

Most people prefer an unsatisfactory present to an uncertain future.

The book includes many case studies and lots of activities that the reader is encouraged to respond to in writing. They could also be used in group problem-solving activities. The first set of activities involves a company disciplinary case – should they fire the worker?

The writers correctly point out that humans are lousy problem solvers because we are trained by systems to reject new ideas (p. 71). How often have I heard “This will never work here because…” when suggesting alternative teaching/learning strategies?

There is an interesting list of fifty questions (p. 119) to ask when solving problems (including “Who else has the problem?”, “Who would be sad if the problem is solved?”, “Who could prevent the problem from being solved?”). As the writers mention,

Problem solving may be nothing more than the art of asking the right questions at the right time.

Humans have evolved such that some are superb problem solvers – we need to consider why our educational institutions are producing very mediocre ones…
Interesting book, but may not be available. By Steven Phillips, 1987, ISBN: 0-88390-205-2

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One Comment on “Solutions: A Guide to Problem Solving”

  1. Tang Kim Seng says:

    I attended the PBL seminar organized by Republic Polytechnic a few weeks ago. One distinguished speaker made an interesting comparison between the transmissionist type of learning versus PBL, and PBL versus problem solving in real life.

    He stated the drawbacks of transmissionist learning:- it does not offer authenticity nor ownership to the students. He went on to say that PBL is different from problem-solving because the problems in PBL are usually well crafted and clearly defined; the approaches for PBL are consistent and well-structured and PBL does not usually offer multiple solutions. He thought that problem-solving would be the better approach because it offers authenticity as real-life problems may not be clear nor well defined, the approaches to problem solving may be different and not well-structured and there can be multiple solutions. However, he cautioned that problem-solving has its drawback because while the students know how to solve problems, they may not be able to comprehend the concepts nor technicalities behind problems nor the solutions. The Harvard students coined this blind problem solving “Engineering in the Wild”. In any case, he said he was in favour of problem-solving, and he saluted and wished Republic Polytechnic well for taking the PBL path.

    The speaker seemed to have gone full circe and led us back to where we had just started – from the transmissionist approach to PBL to problem-solving and then back to transmissionist approach again. Which is the best approach then ?

    Years ago, the late Bruce Lee gave a lecture on martial arts. He said did not believe that there would be one standard approach to defeat his enemy. He was against the classical form of martial arts which had great forms and styles but lacked the practicality to defeat the enemy. Rather, he likened his approach to that of water which has no form. He would adapt and act in a way which gave him superiority over his enemy -even if he had to bite with his teeth or hit well below the enemy’s belt (if you know what I really mean). Perhaps we, the educationists could learn a thing or two from Bruce.

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