Think about the things that get in the way of solving problems. First think of the external factors that inhibit problem solving; the imposed factors from the environment that get in the way of accomplishing important things (e.g. limited time).
Now list all the internal barriers; these are the restrictions inside ourselves that sometimes represent problem solving blockages (e.g. lack of creative ideas).
Barriers: Imposed or Self-inflected? Look at Figure 1.
Figure 1. Problem Solving Barriers (1)
Computer generated art as a representational tool for illustrating barriers:
The image in Figure 1, represents the problem space. The dimly lit scene suggests a difficult problem - we can't see too far in front of us. Difficult problems often require groping around and making mistakes. The light suggests where we begin, initially we may have a few ideas but those are hemmed in by various walls that block our field of view. The walls represent the barriers we face when solving a problem.
The brick wall represents the externally imposed barriers , these often seem impenetrable or insurmountable. External barriers are often out of your control ...or at least that is what we initially think. Often if you face only one direction the problem is impenetrable. However if you backup and change your point of view there may be alternative routes to the solution. Taking a different perspective on the problem often opens up new possibilities. In some circumstance external barriers can be removed altogether if we can think differently. Both of these solutions require creative thinking, a topic for another module.
The semitransparent wall represents our internal cognitive, attitudinal or emotional structures that get in the way. Often we can see through these but it may seem difficult to remove that barrier or find a different route to the goal state. These barriers can also be removed or circumvented. These may represent a lack of resolve, commitment, ideas, creative strategies, etc..
External versus Internal Barriers
Here is a quick list of potential barriers as a result of a brainstorming session. see if you can add your own ideas to this:
External Barriers (less controllable)
Internal Barriers (more controllable)
Value of identifying Barriers
It is helpful to identify barriers so that we can then work around or come up with a way to remove those. The literature on problem solving has identified a number of general forms of barriers. As these are listed see if you can think of instances when this barrier has been a problem for you.
1. Problem Solving Set (Mechanizing) (Anchoring) (Hindsight):
Mental Sets; "ruts in thinking", mindsets
There maybe something about a problem that looks familiar, so individuals develop strategies that persist even though the problem calls for alternative options. This saves time (when it works), buts tends to blind a person to better solutions. Recall the water jug problem from last module. In the face of information about a problem, our first impression seems to dampen our adjustment to new information. People are overly biased by hindsight. The mind has a tendency to impose order on occurrences, and tends to over estimate the probability of an event reoccurring.
2. Functional Fixedness
A specific illustration of the mindsets is when thinking restricts the use of objects for familiar purposes. Does our educational system encourage this kind of thinking? I recall in elementary school doing a lot of questions like "which one is not the same". These kind of questions force students to narrow the functionality of objects displayed (only the most common functionality was correct). When students think in terms of what was possible with the objects displayed, they got the questions wrong because they could see other possibilities. It is difficult to actually think outside the box and see how objects or concepts can be used in new ways. Incubation, spending time thinking about a problem may be a way of overcoming functional fixedness. This has implications for instructors. For instance, how do instructors respond when a student gives the wrong answer... do we try to understand where that answer came from? Do we assume that the answer is wrong or do we try to explore why their answer may be potentially correct?
Stereotyping very similar to the previous category - it is the kind of thinking that is conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified opinion. This thinking makes assumptions from the specific to the general. For instance, all education professors are entrenched in theory and are not able to apply it to the practical, at least the one professor in my C&I module was like that. Too great a reliance on stereotyping and experience causes us to ignore relevant information. This approach tends to ignore conflicting evidence and logic.
4. Artificially imposed rules
Sometimes we impose limits on the objects or situations that reduce the number of solution paths available. For instance, here is a classic, the inoperable tumor:
5. Premise difficulties
The premise is the preliminary or explanatory statements or facts of a problem. Inserting additional premises, misinterpreting premises, ignoring premises all work against solving problems. Again the most important task to solving problems is understanding the problem.
Focusing on misleading and irrelevant Information
Problem solving often accounts for the probabilities of occurrences. Some probabilities can be measured statistically. There is also subjective probabilities, the probability of occurrence in our minds. Many real world problems do not have definitive objective probabilities, so we must rely on subjective probabilities to make decisions. For instance with gambling, people tend to ignore the objective probabilities and side on the subjective probabilities that over inflates the chances of winning. People can misinterpret, skew, or dismiss the probabilities. Another example is mountain climbers. Even when the odds are against an ascent to the summit (e.g. Everest) given the weather conditions and time of day, climbers continue to die trying to defy the odds. In those situations our choices are irreversible when our problem solving skills fail us and it leads to death or injury.
8. Verification tendency
There is a tendency to verify rather than falsify a rule. It seems particularly true on abstract problems. A more effective approach is to use the "detective set strategy" which looks for a rule-breaking instance. When is it not true or when does it not work? Too often we only look at when it does work. Security at airports seems fine in terms of testing when it works but what about those instances when it fails? Under what circumstances can it be circumvented? We need thinking that provides a new perspective. For instance, as security at airports increases other areas of our society are left wide open to terrorism.
9. Non systematic
For some there is a lack of thoroughness in organizing and testing the parameters of a system. This one is all too common given the hectic life we lead. This is a common flaw in student assignments. Taking time to plan, organize, and think through problems works to overcome this barrier.
10. Lack of engagement
Sometimes questions are approached on a superficial level, and the problem solver doesn't get deep enough into the problem. A related term here is "mindfulness", which suggests that the mind is engaged with the problem. Important problems require undivided attention. Too often individuals don't engage and this results in a lack of persistence to see the problem through to completion. I hope that in this course you will become engaged in problems. Become one with the problem ....Zen and the art of problem solving.
There are other barriers, ...can you think of more?
How can Barriers be Overcome?
Look carefully at the barriers listed above and think of ways that you will address these barriers or how to encourage your students to overcome these.
To be able to identify barriers to problems solving.
Today's topic covers barriers to problem solving. The intent of this module is to get you thinking more intently about problem solving through identifying barriers that inhibit the process. A discussion of barriers, leads to the next three modules on strategies, in part to overcome the barriers.
Educator’s Role in Problem Solving
Can instructors make a difference in terms of how students approach problem solving? Can we teach problem solving? This is an incredibly important issue, to read more go to the page at the link below:
Technology & Barriers
Technology as a Barrier:
What happens when technology becomes the barrier?
Is technology sometimes the problem?
List in your mind ways in which technology itself becomes the problem or barrier to solving a problem.
Here is a few ideas of how technology can get in the way:
How can communication technologies address barriers?
The computer can help us overcome barriers by providing the user with new alternatives. The computer represents information in such a way that new functions can be visualized because of their presence in the program. These features provide subtle hints to mitigate against problem solving set and functional fixedness. Most computer tools require the user to be explicit in the way information is represented. This requirement would moderate stereotyping, misinterpreting premises, addition of premises, ignoring premises, and being nonsystematic.
Computer tools may stimulate spending the necessary time to think rigorously about problems because the problem needs to be translated into a form the computer will accept. Thus this slows the learners down to think about the problem, identify the attributes of the problems, and be rigorous with their thinking. The computer is a safe environment because the results don't have to be public; you can play with ideas before communicating those to others, saving our self-esteem and giving us the freedom to exercise lateral thinking. The computer also has powerful tools that facilitate the construction process and perform compelling transformations on data and symbols.
The computer does not guarantee new insight nor promise that barriers will be torn down but it provides another tool to grapple with problems and gives us additional perspectives.
Recognizing the barriers to problem solving will help counter those issues. Computer technology has features that potentially break down some barriers. Ironically, computers can also become the barrier. Is technology a barrier or an effective problem solving device? That is what this course is all about. I think you will find that both ideas are probably true. At times computer technology provides great tools to solve problems, at other times, the technology gets in the way. Reflect on the how this has played out in your choice of tools and how it might play out in future problems solving scenarios.
Gilhooly, K. G., (1988). Thinking: Directed undirected and creative. second edition, San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Jonassen, D. H. (2003). Learning to Solve Problems with Technology: A Constructivist Perspective. 2nd Edition, Prentice Hall.