Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ill-defined problems

This semester, I have another capstone class designed to prepare seniors to use what they've learned in their degree program to tackle the reality of doing versus studying. We've completed job searches (to assess knowledge, skills, and abilities needed), completed self-assessments, and looked at the learning they've acquired from life and academic failures, all as foundation for the realities of doing.

Last week, we (and I use that pronoun with intention) embarked on a project for a stakeholder. The project contains opportunities to use and/or learn the knowledge and skills needed for the work the students want. And some of them are frustrated and angry. They want to be told what to do with the ill-defined problem we have at our disposal as a learning opportunity.

And this is what puzzles me every time I encounter it: Students who want responsibility, want to be hired, want to be promoted...and who want to be told how to do their work. I understand the frustration, as it's a natural part of learning. I don't understand being angry about the lack of a clear path to follow. Perhaps it's because we have not introduced our students to ill-defined or ill-structured problems often enough or early enough:

Education research has shown that an effective technique for developing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills is to expose students early and often to "ill-defined" problems in their fields. An ill-defined problem is one that addresses complex issues and thus cannot easily be described in a concise, complete manner. Furthermore, competing factors may suggest several approaches to the problem, requiring careful analysis to determine the best approach. (1)

There may be more than one best approach in some fields, but the "careful analysis" part is required regardless of the field or discipline. And the traditional approach to teaching (three tests and a final exam) rarely require careful analysis of an ill-formed or ill-structured problem. And those are the only real problems I have encountered in my years as an employee, a consultant, an executive, a teacher, or a parent.

In the language of design (or design thinking), the term wicked problem is sometimes used. Complexity may not always be synonymous with wicked or with ill-defined, but the only way to assess the complexity and the degree of (ill)structure or wickedness is to do the careful analysis.

Careful analysis is hard work. The pay-off for doing it well is usually large. The motivation to do it at all is what seems to be in question, but perhaps what appears to be a motivation problem is the fear of failing--because we clearly have not been consistently teaching students how to approach these problems.

(1) The use of ill-defined problems for developing problem-solving and empirical skills in CS1. David Reed, Department of Math and Computer Science, Creighton University.