Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Going D.E.E.P.E.R. with Problem Solving and Problem-Based Learning

What exactly a problem?

Is it a circumstance that can be addressed?

Is it a condition that can be cured?

Is it an issue that can be resolved?

Is it a situation that can be handled?

Is a problem all these things, and can all problems be solved?

Not necessarily.

Most problems cannot be solved.  In fact, most problems in real life are only addressed, handled, resolved, settled, and even avoided.

Take a look at the articles featured in the newspaper, the stories in the news magazines, and the reports featured on the local, national, and cable news networks.  Each one is a real world problem that needs to be addressed, handled, resolved, or settled.  

However, education, school, and teachers teach us every question has an answer, every problem has a solution, and every task can be completed.

That's not problem solving.  That's solving problems.

Problem solving focuses more on the planning, process, thinking, and reasoning involved in addressing and handling circumstances, issues, problems, and situations rather than the solution itself.  The solution is the measurable example or outcome of the problem solver's thinking.  It is also not final or finite.  What is a viable solution presently may not be in the future.  With problem solving, as the adage goes, just when you think you have the answers, the question changes.

When we teach problem solving to solve problems, what we're actually doing is expecting students to attain an answer, conclusion, or solution.  What we should be teach students is how to think critically and creatively, examine and explore deeply, work collaboratively and responsibly, and communicate clearly their deeper knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness of the process of problem-solving.

Teaching problem solving involves students learning how to engage in two different processes we explain using the acronym D.E.E.P.E.R.

D.E.E.P.E.R. Problem Solving
D.E.E.P.E.R. Problem Solving involves students thinking strategically how to solve a problem by identifying what the problem is; examining and exploring all alternatives, options, and possibilities through research, investigation, and experimentation; picking the best solution; evaluating and explaining their thinking and reasoning; and reflecting and reporting on what they have learned through their education and experience. The ultimate goal is to find an acceptable or appropriate resolution or solution.  The scientific method is an example of how students would engage in D.E.E.P.E.R. Problem Solving.

D.E.E.P.E.R. Design
D.E.E.P.E.R. Design involves students thinking creatively how to design a plan or prototype of a product that will address, handle, settle, or solve a problem.  While the process is similar to D.E.E.P.E.R. Problem Solving, the end result is a plan or product that can be used to handle or manage the circumstance or situation. It combines both the critical thinking of problem-based learning and the creative thinking of project-based learning.  Engineering design is an example of how students would engage in problem solving using the D.E.E.P.E.R. Design method.

D.E.E.P.E.R. Review involves students analyzing and evaluating how a particular issue, problem, or situation was addressed, handled, settled, or solved and coming up with their own ideas and recommendations as to how they would deal with the problem. In these situations, the problem has already been identified and solved, and the student is expected to review how the situation was handled or what they would do with similar circumstances.  Case studies and literature reviews are examples of learning activities and experiences in which students would use the D.E.E.P.E.R. Review method of problem solving.  

The process and thinking students demonstrate and communicate depends upon the type of problem they are expected to address, handle, resolve, settle, or solve.  

Is this a well-structured, tame problem such as an algorithmic or mathematical story problem that has a clear, definitive answer?  

Is this an ill-structured, complex problem that engages students to choose from a list of possible and potential solutions, troubleshoot how to address the problem, come up with a diagnosis and hypothesize how to treat the condition, or think strategically and tactfully how to accomplish their goals within a certain time limit?  

Is this an ill-structured, wicked problem that continuously changes and evolves over time and has no clear or universally acceptable or agreed upon solution?

These are the types of problems students will encounter in their personal and professional lives.  Some problems may be difficult yet simple to solve, having a clear cut solution that takes time and effort to discover.  Some problems may be more complex, requiring students to demonstrate and communicate higher and deeper levels of knowledge, understanding, thinking, and awareness.  Some problems may be so complicated that finding an ultimate solution is near impossible.

So how can we develop problem-based learning activities that will teach students how to work with such a variety of problems?

Jonassen's Typology of Problems
Jonassen's Typology of Problems provides a framework of problem types we educators can use to develop deeper teaching and learning experiences that will teach our students how to work with the type of problems students will encounter throughout their lives academically, personally, and professionally.

Tame problems are the types of problems typically presented in school - problems that have simple, clear cut solutions.  What students should be provided are examples of the complex and wicked problems they will encounter in the real world.

Decision-making problems require students to make a choice from a list of alternatives, options, and solutions.  Examples of such problems would be choosing who to vote for in an election.

Troubleshooting problems expect students to figure out why something is not working and fix it.  Examples of such problems would be determining why an engine is not running properly and making the necessary adjustments to fix it.

Diagnosis-solution problems take a more scientific approach to troubleshooting, challenging and engaging students to use their education and experience to hypothesize what the problem is and how to treat the condition.

Strategic-tactical problems are goal-oriented and constrained by time.  Such problems occur in athletics and sports when the clock is ticking and the quarterback or center needs to determine how to execute a play successfully before time runs out.

Policy analysis problems have students examining actual laws, policies, and rules and determining their appropriateness and effectiveness.  Examples would be reviewing the amendments of the U.S. Constitution to determine whether the intent behind the law remains pertinent and practical or even the applicability of school rules and policies such as dress codes.

Designing and planning problems engage students to think critically and creatively how to fix flaws, innovate existing designs, or invent new plans and products that will make products work more effectively and efficiently.  Examples would be how to innovate the design and workings of a cell phone or computer or create a new product altogether,

Dilemmas are social problems that cannot be solved - only addressed, handled, settled, or avoided.  These problems are the most wicked and tenuous, involving so many stakeholders with multiple interests and investments in both the problem and the solution.  Universal acceptance of a solution is near possible, which is why such problems are so difficult to solve.  Examples of dilemmas includes issues involving education, immigration, politics, poverty, and socioeconomics.  The arguments surrounding the Common Core State Standards is an example of a dilemma that can only be addressed, handled, settled, or avoided.

The 5 R's of Problem-Based Learning
When developing a problem-based learning environment and experience, consider these questions that address the 5 R's of Deeper Teaching and Learning.

  • Rigor: This is defined by the performance objectives and learning outcomes documented in the Common Core State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, and the state content area standards.
  • Relevance: This addresses the "big ideas" of the disciplinary area and the enduring understandings of the concept and content being taught and learned.
  • Relationships: This identifies who or what can help the student solve the problem accurately and appropriately.
  • Results: This sets how students will demonstrate and communicate their ideas, reasoning, and thinking behind their solution.
  • Reflection: This engages students to consider how they can develop what they have learned and experienced into expertise that will  help them address similar issues, problems, and situations they may encounter in their academic, personal, and professional lives.
When developing problem-based learning activities and experiences, keep in mind the focus should be more on the process involved in addressing a problem rather than the solution itself.

- E.M.F.


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