deciding-treeHave you ever gone to the doctor with a rather vague problem? The kind of problem that has no obvious solution?

“Doctor, my elbow hurts.”

“Doctor, I have a runny nose.”

“Doctor, look at this rash.”

From that ambiguity, we expect our physicians to narrow down something that could have a thousand origins to the one specific cause, then make it all better with one specific treatment. It is not just physicians that we expect to have uber-problem solving skills either. Many of the people we run into in life are asked by us to solve our hazy dilemmas.

We tell the mechanic: “My car is making a funny noise, can you fix it?”

A quarterback asks: “What’s the best play to run, coach?”

We might ask a decorator: “I need help redoing this room. What can be done with it?”

We might ask friends: “What do you think is the best car for me to buy?”

Some of our ambiguous problems are mundane: “What toothpaste should I use?” or “What should I have for dinner?” On the other hand, some of our conundrums are much more life changing: “Should I get married?” which leads to “Whom should I marry?” which leads to “Should we have children?” which leads to all kinds of other ponderables. Mundane or life changing, they are all problems to be solved.

From our first activity in the morning until the last thing we do before we visit dreamland each night, we are constantly engaged in a series of problems to solve — some easy, some hard. Problem after problem after problem. Question after question after question. Simply put, life is a series of ambiguous questions to be answered. The better we are at problem solving, the better chance we have at making a proper decision when the time comes and being successful in both our personal and career pursuits.

Some of the questions we have pretty much solved long ago and have placed them into our routine of daily life: The best route to drive to work each morning, the team we should root for, even the types of food we like to eat and how much time we watch TV. But even the most routine of things that we do each day were at one time, problems to be solved. That route to work that you drove this morning was at one time a question for you to answer. Should you drive this way or that? What were the advantages of each route? This route may be shorter, but there is always a morning back-up. This route is longer, but traffic flows more smoothly. I think I will go this way. Problem solved.

So what’s this got to do with school?

tree-of-knowledge-560Problems like these are not like problems we give our students to solve. Problems we traditionally give to students have a single correct answer (think multiple choice, true and false, and fill in the blank). We spend, an inordinate amount of time teaching students how to find the the “single-answer-that-is-the-correct-answer.” While that might be good in the short term, and easy to grade, in the long term I believe we are doing them a terrible disservice.

As one of my colleagues once stated, we might be practicing educational malpractice. By not teaching and pushing our students to develop problem solving skills, we fail to prepare them adequately for life outside of school. We are “preparing” them, in fact, for a world where the questions and answers are pre-packaged and easy to bubble in. And that world does not exist.

Problems like the ones I’ve mentioned above are called “messy problem” by some educators and “ill-structured problems” by others. Messy problems have no single, certifiably correct answer. There is no “one right way” to solve a problem like “should I get married” or “what should I study in college?” The answer is the goal, but the answer can manifest itself in many correct ways and lead to a lot of unexpected learning along the way. Ambiguity envelopes us. It begins at birth and follows us through to the last days of our lives. Start to finish, life is messy.

I love ill-structured problems. When offered in a classroom setting, they present students with real life situations and devilish dilemmas. Problem based learning, a methodology begun in the late 1960’s in medical schools in Canada (and expanded into K12 education in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s) was developed after medical experts in teaching hospitals could not understand why otherwise excellent interns froze up when real life humans were placed in front of them with real life problems (there might even be panic and bleeding).

After long investigation, if became clear to instructors that while the students were “book smart” and could recite page after page of diagnostic information from memory, most patients did not present their symptoms in a way that matched the book: “You know Doc, my elbow hurts just like the description on page 354 of the Jensen Ortho text,” said no patient ever.

We need to move away from the pedagogy of the single answer and move towards teaching the messy problems of Problem Based Learning. This is different than Project Based Learning (as I wrote about here), where the end goal is already known (and thus a single correct answer is reached in many cases). Life does not work so much like a project; human development is pretty much Problem Based Learning. The best outcome or solution is usually not known when the problem is presented. Sometimes it is, but not often.

In pursuit of the messy answer

davinci1Moving towards messy answers to messy problems is not just a matter of shifting the way we test (although that’s a messy problem in itself). It’s first and foremost a shift in the way we expect our teachers to teach and our students to learn. We cannot in all honesty think that students can possibly be prepared to solve life’s messy problems when for years all they have been taught to do was look for the single best answer on the standardized test. (Watch out for those distractors!)

Consider these current very messy problems now facing the nation:

How should education be reformed? 

What is the best way to handle gun violence?

What should be done about how the government spends money?

What should be our response to global climate change?

And on and on and on…

We have seen what happens when groups of people have little or no problem solving skills: Nations go to war. Religions fight. Congress cannot talk to the President. Gun owners cannot talk to gun control advocates. Husbands cannot talk to wives. Students bully each other. All of these snarls and snafus are directly the result of a pervasive lack of problem solving skills among the populace.

When problem solving (and its twin sister critical thinking) isn’t business as usual, then charlatans and conmen can easily manipulate a situation. If you don’t believe that this is true, consider the current highest rated show on cable’s History Channel, “Ancient Aliens,” a program that is neither historically accurate nor even close to being scientifically factual. Yet millions watch this show which, somehow, every week, links obscure cave drawings, religious texts, nut job theories and tin foil conspiracies into stories of how our ancestors were the spawn of human/alien mating. (Great-great grandma was a Klingon. Get used to it.)

As our students grow up and enter adult life and work, those with a lack of problem solving skills will be at a distinct disadvantage to those who can solve problems and detect flimflam and flummery. And those who realize there are many “correct” ways to solve problems will have a great advantage over those who believe there’s a single answer for each and every question.

Let’s start reform here!

Education reform — a topic that we have now been discussing since forever, according to education-historian-turned-reform-skeptic Diane Ravitch — must actually begin somewhere. I suggest this: Let us take a good hard look at the curricula and standards that are now out there. Let us agree on a common set of goals, and let us at least consider the idea of making true problem-based learning part of the standard curricula for grades K to 12 and beyond.

color painted child handYes, it’s messy and harder to teach. Yes it takes more time. But if you truly believe that clichéd phrase hanging on the wall in your school somewhere about preparing students for the future, and how they will be future leaders, then you have to know, deep down, that just teaching kids to take tests is not preparing them for anything other than just taking tests. Nobody will pay you for that for too long.

If we can teach kids to solve messy problems before they graduate, they might not have such a hard time solving messy problems when they start running the world. Or trying to figure out what is wrong with my elbow.

(And they will start running the world, you know. That’s one question we can be pretty sure has a single answer.)


About the author
Tim Holt, a 28-year public school educator, has been both a science teacher and urban district administrator. He is currently Director of Instructional Technology in the El Paso (TX) ISD. Through it all, he has been an experimenter with technology, seeking ways to make learning more engaging and meaningful. In 2012, he received the Making IT Happen Award from the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA). Tim lives in Canutillo TX with his family and blogs at Holt Think.