Harnessing our Problem Solving Abilities

Harnessing our Problem Solving Abilities

Jesse Martin 05/06/2018 3

Critical thinking is the most powerful problem-solving tool in existence. Not the kind of problem that can be coded with an algorithm, but a complex problem that involves thinking. How do we develop the skill of critical thinking? Critical thinking is not a single skill but a collection of skills that allow someone to figure out a difficult, complex problem.

Critical thinking is made up of six skills that we need to teach higher education students in order for them to harness the problem-solving abilities that they have.

  • The ability and willingness to plan
  • Cognitive flexibility – rejection of rigidity or dogmatic thinking and being able to entertain multiple viewpoints or ideas
  • Persistence – because it is effortful it is easy to take shortcuts to find a solution
  • Willingness to self-correct – this is, by far, the most difficult because it means that you can be wrong
  • Directed attention – making your thinking purposeful and directive
  • Consensus seeking – sometimes in the process of solving a difficult problem, we find that we must display some give and take in order to get through it

Because of brain development and the fact that all of these skills require abstract reasoning, these skills have to be taught or at least required to succeed. They don’t come naturally like the cognitive skills that emerge as the brain matures. First, I will outline the skill set that we teach, or at least require, in higher education and beyond.

The first is skill is planning. Not just the ability to plan but also a willingness to plan. In order to successfully navigate a degree program, not just scrape by, a person has to learn to plan. An undergraduate or master’s research project needs planning. A Ph.D. needs planning. A successful research career needs planning. In order to successfully navigate any of these stages in education or a research career, planning is required. Whether or not we teach planning explicitly, it has to be learned. It requires abstract thinking, but some form of planning ability usually arrives with the students when they enter college or university. Keep in mind that for students leaving grade 12, 60% of them can understand and manipulate two abstract concepts simultaneously, and planning future activities in detail involves an abstract concept - the future. If students don’t have the ability to plan when they arrive, they quickly acquire it if they become successful students.

The second skill that is acquired in order to successfully complete a degree program is directed attention. During a two, three, or four-year degree program, directed attention is normally employed in short bursts. Most normal undergraduate students will complete essays or term papers in a single week – some do them overnight. Although most educators would like to believe that this kind of work takes much longer, the students manage to complete, what is supposed to demonstrate in-depth understanding, in very short timespans. Because this is the kind of work that is consistently seen by teachers, and marking is primarily comparative, the students end up being rewarded for the work that they do and basic psychology tells us that when people (students) are working for an extrinsic motivator (a grade or a degree) they will put in only the minimal amount of effort to satisfy their goal. For exams, the majority of students study for extremely short time periods (cramming) in order to meet their goals. In most Masters programs, the expectations remain largely the same – memorize information and pass tests (or do essays). The directed attention required for these activities is not a long-term effort, and so students are not really expected (or taught) to focus their attention for more than a week or so.

Longer term problem-solving projects or research-based Masters programs require longer periods of directed attention, and for a student to do well in a rigorous environment, they will be required to learn to really focus their attention. Unfortunately, this requirement is almost always focussed on a single project in a narrow area of study. The problem of transference arises and the skill that is learned is limited to the specific context within which it is learned.

The third skill that is expected and acquired in some Masters programs and virtually all Ph.D. completions is perseverance. The work in normal undergraduate programs simply does not require a long-term focus on a problem in order to solve it. A review paper is not a problem-solving exercise. A Ph.D. requires years of focus in order to complete one, and so the skill of perseverance is needed to get through it. Although it has been argued that simply completing an undergraduate degree demonstrates perseverance, since post-secondary education is expected for almost any “good job”, the societal, family, and self-pressure replaces the real skill of perseverance in the same way that finishing secondary school requires minimal perseverance.

I would argue that cognitive flexibility, the willingness to self-correct, and consensus-seeking are not taught or required in a normal course of gaining an education. Even at the most senior levels of education, these skills are not required very often. Even researchers fail to demonstrate these skills often.

Cognitive flexibility, defined as the rejection of rigidity or dogmatic thinking and being able to entertain multiple viewpoints or ideas is not necessary for almost any undergraduate program. Virtually all undergraduate work and most Masters work is convergent. Not only is it convergent, but students enter these programs ready to be taught. This means that they are looking for answers to things that they know nothing or little about and want an authority figure to tell them both what and how to think. Even when they are given two points of view to consider, often their learning is limited to memorizing the fact that there are divergent viewpoints. There is little room in most programs for real discussion and full consideration of the nuances of most academic arguments. Students are looking for the right answer and higher education teachers find it easy to teach the right answers.

As far as cognitive flexibility in studying for a Ph.D., this work is never done in a vacuum. A Ph.D. student enters a program of study, selecting a supervisor who will guide and mentor a student through the process. In my years as an academic, I can’t think of a single academic with a Ph.D. who’s thinking does not align with that of their supervisor. There must be a few somewhere, but it is certainly not the norm. Cognitive flexibility is not really required for any level of education. I have my doubts that it is required for very many who choose a career as a researcher either (see the willingness to self-correct section).

The willingness to self-correct is exactly what it says – admit that you are wrong and go in a different direction with your work. Undergraduate education does not really require this because students do not enter post-secondary education with firmly held beliefs about the topics that they are studying. They are there to learn the basics and are waiting to be told what to believe by the authority figures who are teaching the subject matter. Rarely are the students given the opportunity to participate in a real academic discussion that is used to persuade others to change their understanding of a subject.

For the same reason that Masters and Ph.D. students are not required to think flexibly, there is no need to self-correct. They are working in an environment that shapes his or her thinking in a certain direction. The work usually harmonizes with the environment that they are working in, and they harmonize their thinking with those that they are working with. Thinking that does not agree with the environment that they are in is erroneous thinking, and often, endless discussions take place in a closed environment enforcing a rigid and dogmatic view of the highly specialized area of knowledge that is acceptable to the principle investigator or supervisor. Self-correction is not only discouraged but in that kind of environment, it is not allowed. You picked me as your supervisor knowing what I think, so you must think the same way or we wouldn’t be working together.

What about self-correction in a research career? I have never heard of a serious academic who stood up and announced to the world that they had been wrong all along. Science and most of the arts is based on the premise that you go where the evidence or thinking takes you. The reality is that research careers are not built on finding out the truth about reality. They are built on confirming the truth that the researcher already knows about reality. Researchers spend almost all of their time finding ways to confirm what he or she already believes. There is no need to self-correct because he or she is already correct. The need for self-correction, and the obvious lack of the ability to self-correct lies with those who don’t agree with your interpretation of reality. This is also why there is no need for cognitive flexibility. If you are right then there is no need to entertain the ideas that don’t agree with yours – except for the need to point out the absurdities of opposing arguments.

Because of the lack of cognitive flexibility and the unwillingness to self-correct, the ability to reach consensus is entirely unnecessary. There is no need to come to a compromise when you are right and the others are wrong.

So, where does that leave us with the harnessing of the most powerful tool for problem-solving? One of the uniquely human abilities that set us apart, not only from animals but from machines as well. It leaves us with a well-defined set of skills necessary to solve the most pressing problems we have in our society, but nowhere to learn them. Education has drifted so far from developing humans and teaching them to think that we are in a bad way. We have problems of dragonic proportions and more educated dragon-slayers than ever before in the history of the world, and all we have armed them with are pea-shooters.

And what is the response? Weeping, wailing and hand-wringing from many. Adopting quick-fix fads to properly arm the dragon-slayers with the tools they need through an afternoon seminar or a $.99 app for the majority who recognize that there is even a problem. And, worst of all, shoulder shrugging (in unison) by the vast majority who respond with, “What am I supposed to do about it?” And these are the responses from those who actually admit that there is a problem.

There are, literally, hundreds of millions facing redundancy in their jobs as automation replaces humans. We have an economy that provides barely adequately services to the vast majority but fully services a powerful elite. We have more wealth in the world than has ever even been imagined in the past, but we still have millions starving or dying from the lack of basic sanitation or health care. We are living in an environment that is literally cooking us - faster than we ever thought possible.

We can fix this. We can change the future. We can come out on top. We have to change the world. We have to harness our vast pool of human potential. We know how we can teach all of these skills and we have new ways of communication that allow us to teach these skills to millions and millions. But we have to overcome the forces that want to keep everything the same or even want to push us back into some imagined golden age. We have to overcome the mindset that there is a quick-fix (learning to think is hard work and takes time). We have to overcome the mindless diversion of reinforcing existing biases and tribalism that we call social media.

We have to be willing and we have to begin. For the sake of our children, we need to exercise the skill of self-correction and accept that there is evidence that shows us a way out and then we have to do something to make it happen.

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  • Sharon MacGill

    I wish someone like you were running this country. I don't know how that would work. You expose the obvious so well.

  • Henry Michaels

    Too many times I find myself reading too much into it and the simple solution is not seen.

  • Jeff Baker

    Too often I focus on the unpleasant situation and being upset about it, forgetting to find solutions and solve problems.

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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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