Changing school from solving problems to dealing with problems – A way forward (part 2)

I’ve spent the last 6 weeks shopping around the ideas in this post, trying to find language that both expressed what I was trying to say and resonated with others. Special thanks to our CoOp students Madicyn, Aidan, Lakshdeep, Rana, Trevor, Collin, Steven and Sawyer for helping me so much with the perspective of the current student. This is still a work in progress. Feedback mightily appreciated.

The Purpose of Education?

Almost 10 years ago to the day, I joined a group of dozens of bloggers who were addressing “the purpose of education.” Looking back at my post now, I note that it wasn’t particularly hopeful in terms of what I thought that purpose was. I also note that my children were quite tiny.

While I think we need to keep talking about why we teach, ‘THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION’ is not something we can answer as a whole question. We can’t ‘solve’ for education. It’s too big, we have too many different assumptions and there are too many people involved to give it a single answer. What we can do is take one idea of what it means, one part of what it might mean, and ask ourselves what that says about the whole. For the purposes of this conversation, I’d like to suggest one thing that our education system might be for. I would ask you to come along with me, with this premise, as least to the end of this post.

Our education system should, at least in part, be designed to help students learn to deal with problems.

Why dealing with problems might be important

We’re going to pull the concept of ‘a problem’ apart here in a little bit, but let’s start at the goal level. We are confronted with problems all the time in our lives. It might be whether or not we should let the kids have ice cream, it might be whether to buy local or buy organic, it could be about voting on the location of a park. Dealing with problems is something you get better at the more you do it. You ‘learn things’ by dealing with problems, but you also learn those habits and practices that carry forward into your next challenge. You learn to deal with uncertainty.

I am purposefully not saying ‘solving problems’, though i do think that sometimes you can deal with a problem by actually solving it. There are certain kinds of problems that can be solved, though the older I get, the fewer real world problems ever seem to get ‘solved’. When I think of my work as a professional, my life as a partner, a friend or a parent… I’m mostly not solving problems. My problems don’t ‘just go away because i have the right answer’. I sometimes am strong or lucky or privileged enough to make a decision about my problems, but i usually have to live with the consequences, good and bad, of those decisions.

What I’m suggesting, then, is that our school system might want to be helping students learn to deal with their problems (current and future).

Ok. How do we deal with problems then?

A problem is an unknown, an uncertainty, an obstacle that needs to be addressed. We give them to students to encourage the learning process. “Subtract 1/2 from 1/4,” “How many Watts of power are used in your house,” “Change my mind about whether you can chew gum in class,” “How you feel about your relationship to fossil fuels”.

Herbert Simon is a HUGELY influential thinker in the history of problem solving. In his 1970 paper with Newell he describes their desire to show the simple, underlying structure of human thought. Their goal was to break down any difficult problem into a series of steps that could be used as input into a computer program they refer to as a problem solving machine. For them, AS FOR SO MANY, they saw chess as the highest bar for of human problem solving. Partially because lots of people researched it, because there was a measurement for success and, i guess, because they thought it was awesome. (See Ensmenger, 2011 on this) So much of our current AI research is premised in chess being the best representative of human thought. Chess is easy to research, let’s use it as the foundation for problem solving.

If we try hard enough, any problem can be solved by breaking it into pieces. Got it.

Chess, however, is a game. It has rules. It has a clear way to win. While there are many options for moving on a chess board, there are only so many. The chess program on my phone can tell me when each of my moves was good or bad… based on the math. Surely using this as the model for dealing with problems is going to limit our ability to deal in the real world. Even Simon admitted that there were some problems that just didn’t fit into his neat little box, and he called them ‘ill-structured’ or ‘ill-defined’ problems. His 2001 definition is my favourite

Problems are called well-structured if the situations, operators and goal tests are all sharply defined; ill-structured, to the extent that they are vaguely defined.

It might just be me, but i can’t help but feel the judgement in that statement… like the ill-structured problems just couldn’t be bothered to work hard enough. Too vague. Not rigorous. And that, my friends, is a huge point. If we have not defined the situations, the operator or the goals tests ‘sharply’ we’re not being rigorous enough. Put the word ‘objective’ or ‘learning outcome’ in that sentence and ask yourself if it resonates.

Ok. Most problems can be solved, but some problems are vague and therefore not as interesting. Also, vague problems, you’re lazy!

So what do we often do when we design problems for students in classrooms? We give them ‘solvable’ problems with clear situations, clear operators and a clear rubric and we ask them to solve the problems. That’s what we call being responsible. Nice clear learning objective. Nice clear outcome. Chi and Glasser (1985) break down problems into three types: puzzles, classroom (well structured or solvable) problems and real life (ill defined or ill structured) problems (pp. 229-231).

Wait. Classroom problems aren’t real life problems? Shouldn’t our classrooms be preparing students for real life?

Reed, (2016) (a Simon disciple) references Rittel & Webber and their amazeballs 1973 paper ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’ as they describe some of those real problems, which they call ‘wicked problems’. “Wicked problems, in contrast, have neither of these clarifying traits; and they include nearly all public policy issues–whether the question concerns the location of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the confrontation of crime.” (p. 160) I quote Reed here, because if you check out the paper, he compares Simon’s work to Rittel and Webber.

Let’s just talk about public policy here for a minute. If our schools are meant to prepare students to be good citizens, they should be able to address the public policy issues they are confronted with as citizens. Do we spend money on that cute park by the water, or do we spend it on solar panels for city hall? If we approach this as a ‘solvable problem’ we get two factions that ‘believe’ that they are right and, mostly likely, yell at each other. If it’s a problem to deal with, we have to make a decision… with consequences.

When i look around my current political landscape, I see our school system as preparing us for the yelling.

Ok. These kinds of problems seem like they’re too hard for students. Lets just give them solvable problems for now, and we’ll get to these vague problems later.

Enter Abundance

In the first part of this series of posts we talked about how the advent of ‘student help sites’ were having a profound impact on how students participate in our education system and how our solutions to this change were not helping. Chegg, ‘cheating’ and the other homework sites are not really the issue here, they are a symptom of a change that has been coming for a long time. We have more information than we did when the education system we work in developed. It’s that simple. We actually have way more information. WAY WAY more information. Our education system was designed to solve the problem of a ‘scarcity of information.’ It did that rather well. We… no longer have this scarcity.

Eye (1974), Barlo (1975) and Sizer (1984) all gave us some kind of warning regarding the burgeoning abundance of information available to humans (dave note: who could afford it) and how we needed to shift from remembering things to handling all of this information. So this abundance is not a new problem. What’s happened is that the technology has caught up with it. We were looking at an abundance of information in the 1970s… but most of it was still filtered through formal publishing system, be that print, radio or TV.

These handy-dandy computers we got now give us access that kind of abundance… and much more. The students have found this technology, and they are now making use of it. And its not just answers to questions they are finding, whole copies of textbooks, people in other countries who are writing their papers… there’s an abundance of… well… pretty much everything.

Putting it simply, your solvable problems will no longer work as a way to practice dealing with problems. Anything you give them that was ever published? They’ve got the answer. All we need to do is look at something like photomath. Scan (almost) any math problem, it solves the math problem for you. Give students a bunch of solvable problems for homework? They might do the work at home… they might use photomath. You will never know. I mean, you could try and trick them… but is that what you want to be as a teacher?

So many discussions in the last 12 months about students cheating by using the internet to solve problems.

A move to dealing with problems…

So you can move towards real life problems because you think that we should be preparing kids for those… or you can do it because your solvable problems don’t work to get students to ‘practice things’.

It’s not easy to teach real-life problems in class. If the problems we give students don’t have clear answers… how can we grade them? How do I teach large classes? How do I… continue to do what I’m doing now?

The answers to these problems aren’t new. We guide. We structure environments where students are encouraged to find things they WANT to learn. The point of this piece is not to answer those questions directly, but to go to part of the core question about what education is FOR.

If we (because we want to or because we have to) are going to say that the goal of education is at least, partially, to help students deal with problems, then our classrooms are no longer places with ‘right’ answers. That changes the power situation we work in. If we choose what the right answer is, we teach students to believe in ‘an answer’ and teach them to believe that those answers are found in the most powerful person in the room. How do they go from that to dealing with real life? Do they just listen to the powerful or do they learn to deal?

If we don’t have answers in our classrooms… how much education research is still valid? “Clear learning objectives lead to higher grades.” How much of our existing educational research is just measure of students ability to solve solvable problems? Does the skill set of solving a solvable problem translate to dealing with real-life problems? People have VERY different feelings about the answer to this question. I’d be super curious about yours.

P.S. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t facts or ‘solvable problems’ that still need to happen in a classroom or in real life. I’m saying that the ‘facts’ aren’t the point of the learning. “How many watts of power does your apartment use” becomes “What is the best way to reduce the number of watts your apartment uses”.

Part 3 – Novice and Expert

A big question left over from this conversation… shouldn’t we start teaching solvable problems before we move onto the more complex ones? Isn’t that what we do with novices? Tune in next blog post when we address this question.


Chi, M. T. H., & Glasser, R. (1985). Problem solving ability. In Human abilities: An information-processing approach (pp. 227–257). W. H. Freeman & Co.

Ensmenger, N. (2011). Is chess the drosophila of artificial intelligence? A social history of an algorithm: Social Studies of Science.

Eye, G. G. (1974). As Far as Eye can See: Knowledge Abundance in an Environment of Scarcity. The Journal of Educational Research, 67(10), 445–447.

Reed, S. K. (2016). The Structure of Ill-Structured (and Well-Structured) Problems Revisited. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 691–716.

Simon, H. A. (1973). The Structure of Ill Structured Problems. Artificial Intelligence, 21.

Simon, H. A., & Newell, A. (1970). Human problem solving: The state of the theory in 1970. American Psychologist, 26(2), 145.

Simon, H. (2001). Problem Solving. In The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (MITECS) | MIT CogNet. The MIT press.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

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