Dr. Don Stierman - 1998

All about us, there are problems to be solved.  How do students learn how to solve problems?

Mr. Thomas Stierman, physics and mathematics instructor at Wahlert High School, Dubuque, Iowa, for the past 20 years, has given this topic some thought.  His students have done very well in competitive events involving mathematics and in passing AP tests.  He wrote (1998):

"Problem-Solving is an activity that takes place in situations in which, for the person(s) involved, there is no readily available or recognizable method of solution.

 Effective problem-solving is the process of resolving a problem to a satisfactory conclusion. Ignoring a problem and hoping it will go away or resolve itself is not effective problem-solving. Example: Efficacy of the effects of presidential responses regarding allegations presented concerning Wm. J. Clinton/ M. Lewinsky.

 Problem-Solving skills are very difficult to develop outside of any specific curricular areas within education. They are usually learned under conditions that are controlled within a "classroom situation" to limit the number of constraints that can (or must) be considered.

Thus, problem-solving is learned within specific activities. It can be learned outside of academia [editor's note: this is sometimes known as 'the school of hard knocks'], but within the scholastic curricula, it is learned within a discipline.

Problem-solving is learned by trying to solve problems. Unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem at least reveal methods that will not work for a specific situation."

A certain amount of problem solving strategy can be learned through observing, by watching a problem solver at work.  However, only through practice at solving problems can a student develop skill in this essential area.  A marathon runner does not improve by watching others run - he or she has to do the road work, experience perspiration and sore feet, just to hope to complete the race!  Many humans, lacking the creativity to invent something new, try to solve problems by inappropriate methods.   

Problem solving requires a person to think in new and different patterns.  People (particularly students) often do not want to think in new and different patterns, frequently because of a widely held opinion that "learning" consists of memorizing facts - particularly answers to the questions that will appear on The Test - and some patterns.  While facts and patterns are important, they are not the entire show.  Consider popular music: how many new songs use notes or words that have not been used in previously published songs?

Major problems facing society are complex.  Solutions require input from specialists who can communicate with other specialists and understand constraints due to principles with which they may not be entire familiar.

Return to Teaching Philosophy

Hit Counter