Inquiry Series: Problem Solving

Problem Solving is Not Linked to a Specific Discipline

Other than “open-ended inquiry,” this problem solving process may be the most “discipline-neutral” method available. Just think, there is no and seemingly never will be a shortage of real-world problems. This is true in every thinkable discipline and domain. John Dewey even posited that, “we only think when we are confronted with problems.” As a pragmatist, he believed the goal of thinking was to guide how to act well within our world and lives.

You can find multiple problem solving processes, some with five key phases, some with additional steps. As you may remember, this is linked to critical thinking because it can be considered a thinking strategy - a process one can learn, practice and systematize as approach to addressing ambiguous situations and ill-structured problems. Thinking strategies are one of the important domains of capacity that can be developed to build critical thinkers.

Steps in Problem Solving

There are five key steps, outlined in this Problem Solving infographic. However, you can find multiple problem solving processes, some with five key steps, and others with additional steps.

Step 1: Explain The Problem

In the first phase, we critically analyze or “unpack” the problem itself. This may start from a problem statement that we unpack into its component parts. Or, in the absence of a clear problem statement, we start by analyzing all of the components of the problem. This can result in problem statement. Let’s take the problem of recurring headaches, for example. I would need to name the problem and the following components: intensity, frequency, duration, known triggers, causes, or antecedents, etc. I’d need to think about how long ago they started and what else what happening around that time. LOTS to consider, and this can be outlined into a problem statement.

Step 2: Imagine A Solution

I love this phase in problem solving - before trying or starting to solve, we must first imagine a solution. All of the elements of the problem that we just named and quantified, we can now imagine what they’d look like in a solution. This creates a set of criteria that we can later use to evaluate our attempts at solving the problem. Back to the headache example, does “solving” look like eliminating all headaches, forever in my future. Probably not. Rather, I’d go component by component and quantify a “solution” level.

Step 3: Investigate Solutions

In this phase, we investigate possible ways to solve. This typically involves research and learning about best practices. It’s very unlikely that we are the first to attempt to solve any problem. So, what has been tried before us? What worked? How do we know? This can be trickier than it sounds because problems can be nuanced. Take the headaches example. There are different types, causes and parameters around treatment. Often we have to go back to unpack the problem even more in this stage.

Step 4: Determine Ideal Solution

Of all of the possible solution pathways, which one fits the best with the nuances of the problem? This phase is a bit of a matching game.

Step 5: Try, Test and Improve

Now we try out our proposed solution and assess the results. We can use the criteria from phase 2. We can seek to learn from both successes and failures in order to improve.