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Got Problems? Teaching Your Learners to Fix Them

Part of a Series: Here’s Why I Love Content Types: And You Should, Too

04-29 Things Are Looking Up

Things Are Looking Up

Problem Solving (or “Processes”). With this content type, the learner must select from multiple potentially-relevant principles and then apply them to make something better. Instructional design, performance technology, medical diagnoses, planning a complicated trip to Timbuktu, or creating a fitness program for someone all fall into this category.

Problem solving is definitely higher-order learning, based on prerequisite facts, concepts, procedures, principles, and sometimes supporting problem-solving processes.

Why We Teach Problem Solving

We use problem solving to work out complex challenges. Soldiers, teachers, clergy, chefs, doctors, engineers, managers, entrepreneurs—almost everyone must solve problems in the course of their work.

We teach the processes for solving problems in the domain within which people will use them. For example: architecture, budgeting, engineering, facilitation, instructional design, leadership, medicine, purchasing, recruiting, sales.

Problem-Solving Processes

Given the often-required large amounts of prerequisite knowledge and skills, problem-solving sounds complicated. However, here’s a (not-so-secret) structure that you’ll find at the heart of problem-solving processes:

  1. Define the problem (or opportunity): What is it? Where should we be instead? What’s causing the problem? How will we know we’ve solved it? What will be the benefits?
  2. Plan the solution: What will we do about this problem, where, in what timeframe? Who will do what as part of this solution?
  3. Implement the solution: Here we carry out the plan. Depending on the thoroughness, accuracy, or regulated nature of the circumstances, we may have to be creative, flexible, or precise during implementation.
  4. Evaluate the results: Did we achieve the benefits we outlined earlier? If so, great. If not, what changed or what did we miss?

How to Teach a Problem-Solving Process

For problem solving, teach each element, customizing lessons for the particular domain (medicine, education, engineering, etc.). In addition, your learners should be able to recognize when it’s time to use the problem-solving process you’re teaching.

You’ll want to ensure adequate practice and feedback when teaching problem-solving processes. Use examples, analogies, demonstrations, case studies or other simulations, sample projects, and apprenticeships.

Define the Type and Range of Problems. Your learners should be able to recognize when to employ the process you’re teaching. Show and discuss examples.

Define the Problem. When presented with symptoms, show your learners how to figure out what is happening. How do we diagnose issues in this domain? What does normal look like, and where should we aim? If you’re teaching them to create something new (where the “problem” is to take advantage of an opportunity), then they should learn to define the desired state. Either way, show them how to define success and what kinds of measures to use.

Plan the Solution. Teach them about the available remedies to employ for this kind of problem. Show what a plan looks like for this kind of solution, and how to create one. For example, an instructional design plan, an architect’s blueprint, an operations order, or a treatment plan.

Implement the Solution. Here we teach how to create and deliver according to our plan. Examples include creating student materials and teaching, coding and launching new software, renovating a building, or negotiating a successful deal with a signed contract.

Evaluate the Results. Teach how to tell whether our implementation was successful. How do we measure? What do we do with the results?

Although it makes sense to teach each of these problem-solving elements separately, once your learners have developed significant expertise, they may be able to combine elements and do some of them concurrently.

Problem solving goes beyond simply following a procedure or working with a single principle. We use processes to solve problems, choosing the correct principles to apply in given situations. Once your learners possess the prerequisite skills and domain-specific problem-solving processes, then they will be equipped to solve problems in their domain of expertise that they’ve never seen before.

Other Posts in This Series

Post | Here’s Why I Love Content Types: And You Should, Too
Post | Learning to Spout Stuff—Necessary, But Seldom Sufficient
Post | It’s a Concept—Got It?
Post | Easy Does It—Step-By-Step

Post | It’s the Principle of the Thing: Predicting, Explaining, and Applying the Rules

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