With the dismal showing of United States high school students in the international problem solving assessment (PISA), there's a lot of talk these days about redirecting the focus of education on problem solving. The effects of the World Wide Web and Internet have also made knowledge alone less important, but application, implication, and analysis more important.
It's not a trivial matter teaching students problem solving. In fact, people who are adept at problem solving seem to have been doing it ever since they were kids. See what Tom Kelley says about his brother IDEO founder David Kelley: "My brother David, for example, has been building things and then trying to make them better for as long as I can remember. We had a snowy Ohio winter the year I was six years old, and David started a series of increasingly complex snow construction projects in the backyard. He started with the basics--three tiered snowmen--but soon progressed to whole forts by lining up snowmen shoulder-to-shoulder to form four walls. Looking for the next revision of his prototype fort, David briefly considered a two-story model, which he thankfully abandoned when he hit upon the idea of using a cardboard box to make snow "bricks"...(then) David hit upon an idea for revision 2.1: adding water to each brick so that it would freeze to a solid and incredibly heavy) block of ice..."
So before educational experts dive into the problem of how to teach problem solving, we might ask, what can be do to cultivate the temperaments of Tweakers. Tweakers are people who have creative discontent. They are not just critics, but intrinsically motivated people who seem to be striving toward perfection. Tweakers are generally confident that the way things are can generally be made better, and that they can find some way to do it.
There are some children who step out of the cradle as natural-born Tweakers, but others have bits and pieces of the successful profile, and its clear that more need to be encouraged to follow in that way. What the successful environments for cultivating Tweakers? Here are a few we came up with:
· Critical eye - Tweakers first have to see that something is wrong or could be improved; they have to be opinionated and critical of themselves as well as others
· Time to Tweak - tweaking takes time - there has to be some trial and error, rumination, discussion with others, and exposure to different ideas or perspectives
· Power to Tweak - having the power in situations to see the outcome of changes or tweaks
· Persevering with a Problem - the puzzle aspect to problem solving is fun for the Tweaker, but sometimes children need to appreciate the fact that the best puzzles are those that are not solved easily or in the same day
· Where or How to Find Ideas - there are better and worse ways to come up with good ideas - bad: looking up cheats or answers, good: reasoning or hypothesizing from analogy or metaphor, changing perspective, finding new information, trying new strategy
What are environments that could stifle tweaking?
· Stifle Criticism- family or classroom environments that discourage free expression, opinion-making or criticism promote passivity and acceptance of the ways things are
· No Time to Tweak- moved quickly from task-to-task, once skill mastered, moved onto another. Artificial environment or curricula where problems and answers are selected for simple or predictable outcomes. Excessive or frequent testing.
· No Power to Tweak - no personal responsibility to a task, no possibility or too risky to try out outlandish ideas, no opportunity to work with primary materials and observe result
· Quick Answers - expectations for results within short time periods. No ambiguity or incompletely answered questions
· No Modeling of Idea Fluency or Problem Solving - many people, not just kids, have unrealistic ideas of how problems should be solved
If we tally up the characteristics of ideal environments for Tweakers, it's easy to see where existing educational approaches fall short. But somehow we must find a way to fill students up with both information and a Tweaker's approach to life. In future posts we'll think about the specific issues of training of Tweakers in science and technology, language arts, mathematics, and social studies.