We are all expert problem solvers. Be it mending a puncture or working out the best way to build a raft to support a team of executives on a retro leadership training day across a polluted river, we are experienced at dealing with challenges.
Problem solving is a process, even though it’s one that we often hide behind ‘intuition’ or activity. It starts with diagnosis, follows up with exploring action plans and reviewing appropriateness (based on resources and experience) and concludes with action and review. Practice can make you better, rushing in headlong is likely to only be successful in a limited range of circumstances.
So, seeing as how we solve problems every day, how can we apply problem solving to learning activities? If people generally have well developed problem solving skills, surely it’s worth us exploring how we can incorporate activities that require users to solve problems in meaningful and challenging ways. After all, one important aspect of problem solving as an activity is that it includes the step of referencing problems against a catalogue of previously solved issues. Clearly the more ‘experiential’ the training environment, the more likely it is to add value to long term activity.
I’ve been reading recently about the Apollo moon landings, and have learnt a lot. Not just about rockets and space suits and how to have a pee in zero G (although i have learnt a lot about all of these things), but particularly about how much everything was rehearsed. The average dedicated training time for each crew, for each mission, was two full years. Now, i knew that they trained extensively in simulators for the ‘technical’ aspects of the mission, such as how to take off and land and carry out a ‘trans lunar injection’, but what i hadn’t realised was the level of training that went into things like the moon walks. By the time of the last two Apollo missions, they were completing up to 20 hours of walking per mission, every minute of which was allocated and rehearsed in minute detail.
I suppose it makes sense really, if you’re spending tens of millions of dollars sending someone to the moon, you want to make sure they don’t just stand around admiring the view, but every one of the 36,000 photographs that they took across all 17 Apollo missions was planned and scheduled in detail.
When they actually got to walk on the moon, the overwhelming feeling was one of being underwhelmed (well, if not the overwhelming feeling, then certainly a sentiment expressed by more than one of the astronauts). There was a feeling that it was easy because they had done it before, in training.
What do we want to take away from this? Well, the main thing is to think about how realistic we make the interactivity in training. Clearly the two year window for Apollo astronauts is a little beyond most training programmes, but the principle is clear that having challenging scenarios and activities can drive up learning.
Rehearsing problem solving activities allows us to build up a bank of strategies and techniques that are applicable to multiple problems. it allows us to practice and refine approaches and build experience, all of which can make us more time efficient at implementing resolution strategies back in the real world.
When we create learning solutions, its’ therefore imperative that we incorporate, at the heart, challenging problems, with appropriate levels of support around them. We need to avoid taking a simplistic approach to scenarios which might have easily resolvable dilemmas, and focus on building complex solutions in iterative ways, letting learners solve one part, then move onto the next. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s likely to pay huge dividends.
One this is certain, and that’s that we are unlikely to get it right every time. Techniques like Action Research, whereby we take an iterative approach, refining and learning at each stage, may allow us to make the transition from simple to complex scenarios and approaches in a methodical way.
Try something different. Try thinking about how we solve problems and how we can build these types of situations into learning, because doing so will allow us to tap into our native skills in these areas.