Thursday, February 7, 2013

Myth #7: Digital Learning Develops Problem-Solving

8 Myths About Digital Learning

OK - I have to compromise on this one. I do believe that using digital tools develops the problem-solving skills necessary to use "new" digital tools.  In fact, I suspect that the thinking that leads children to succeed in any problem-solving digital game becomes a habit of mind that helps in solving similar non-digital, real-life problems.  Students who can, for example, advance steadily in Cut the Rope are more likely to be able make suggestions to get a team over a wall challenge or are more likely to contribute key language to a class constitution.

Here are some problem-solving basics (this is my own list):

  • I have to understand the problem and what makes it hard
  • I have to think about what I already "know" about the problem topic
  • I have to take a deep breath and think critically about what I read, see, think, feel, hear, and already "know" - throw out the unimportant, wrong, false, exaggerated, emotional, and biased
  • If I don't see a solution, I have to take a risk and try something different
  • If I do nothing, there will be no solution
  • I have to accept and learn from my mistakes, missteps, and failures
  • I have to give this time
  • If I find a solution right away, this doesn't mean I have the best solution
  • Some problems are too hard for just me
  • Being in a team has advantages, so listen to team members
  • Finding, keeping, and evaluating evidence and experience as I work for a solution is important
  • I have to test my solution (unless it obviously works)
  • Solving a hard problem gets me ready for an even harder problem and makes me better at similar problems
Problem-solving requires Critical Thinking. In education, Critical Thinking is today thought of as, well, critical.  As expressed in this post from Educational Technology and Mobile Learning, it has these elements:

Other researchers use different terminology for critical thinking skills:
It's In the Genes
Whichever language you choose, notice that individual judgment and opinion are embedded in these research models of Critical Thinking (on this point I quibble with critical thinking as applied by the Common Core to reading.  Personal response and previous knowledge matter. Enough said).  Note also that research supports that critical thinking skills can be taught, but also that once learned, they are not applied with automaticity by any individual.  Their optimum application in the classroom should, therefore, be monitored, and must be required.

The above research article (It's In the Genes) also states that problem-solving style preferences are innate (adaptive/narrow solution focused or innovative/wide solution focused).  This suggests to me that the design of an educational problem is, for many students, directly related to its outcomes - for an individual student and for a problem-solving team.  This requires a teacher or teaching team.

[Aside: the relationship between Problem-solving and Critical Thinking is a complex one, characterized by overlap and interdependence.  I have found this article to be very helpful in understanding the components of both as they related to education.]

So what?  It is clear to me that the skills of critical thinking can be assisted by digital tools, and to this degree digital learning does develop them.  Multiple cases have been made for the use of technology to enhance and develop each of the elements of critical thinking identified above.  Tools such as blogging and backchanneling can even develop the student's ability to self-examine and self-correct.

On the other hand, problem-solving is not developed, but supported, by technology. Ready access to information, including that previously explored and that converted to knowledge, and the communication of solutions and their analysis, are more easily done with facile use of technology than without.  But it only through solving problems that we get better at solving problems.  Ready access to multiple challenging problems may be better for students than extended access to one large, hard technology-rich problem.

So, when we speak of learning, we do better to speak of Critical Thinking.  When we speak of gathering and demonstrating learning - of the processes of learning (writing, reading, researching) - we do better to speak of solving problems.

I have touched on this previously:

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