Learning to solve problems by example

When we're focused on problem solving methods, books and expertise, we forget how we've all learned most of our problem solving skills by example. We teach others as if we are not providing an example to learn from. We assume others need to be taught by delivering new content. We prepare others to talk about problem solving more authoritatively without changing how well they will solve their problems or which kinds of problems they're capable of solving.

The teaching-learning thing often creates lots of problems for everyone involved. For students it's problems with their loss of comprehension, curiosity, motivation, personal reflection, follow-thru, and cooperation with other learners. This is an immediate set-up for the students to learn from the example of how the instructor handles these problems with learning from the instruction. The students' problems usually give the instructor his/her own problems with covering the material, maintaining the pace, steering clear of distractions, completing the exercises, generating discussions and evaluating contributions fairly.

The instructor may also acquire a mirror-image set of problems with learning from the students' problems. The teacher may experience a loss of: comprehension of the students' problems, curiosity about the causes of the students' problems, motivation to accurately diagnose and resolve those problems, reflection on personally contributing to the problems, follow through with individual students and cooperation with the students' contrary outlooks. When the instructor acquires this mirror-image set of problems, the problems go unsolved. A profound lesson is taught by example: problems with learning cannot be solved and take too much time out of formal instruction. Students get the message that's their situation calls for pretending to learn and sweeping their troublesome problems under the rug. Learning to not solve problems becomes the takeaway lesson.

When an instructor takes responsibility for the students' problems with learning, a very different lesson gets taught. The instructor diagnoses those particular problems accurately, and ultimately solves those problems with the students active participation. The students get shown how problems with learning can be solved, dealt with intentionally, and utilized as the most important lesson to be learned. The instructor's approach to the students' problems with learning becomes a positive, self-fulfilling prophesy. It becomes obvious to the students how versatile and competent that teacher's problem solving skills appear to be. Students learn how to solve lots of other problems (a.k.a. metacognitive strategies, skill generalization, self-efficacy) from the teacher who solves the immediate problems both the students and teacher are having with each other.

These occasions of learning to solve problems by example are so rare because problems with learning appear to offer no solution. Instructors do not leap at the constant opportunities to solve problems of comprehension, curiosity, motivation, etc. The nature of these problems defy conventional problem solving techniques. they give us emotional baggage, not confidence, efficacy or freedom from our past history. More specifically, these problems are:
  • organic, not mechanistic or easily fixed
  • reciprocal exchanges, not one person's doing
  • maintained by an underlying system, not an isolated phenomena
  • symptomatic of a deeper problem, not obvious or revealed by evidence
  • deceptive, not straightforward or easily uncovered
  • perceptual, not objective or independent of prophetic influences
  • baggage related, not an indication of knowledge or skill deficiencies

When these problems get addressed as problems with baggage, not with solving problems, the diagnose clears up everyone's frustrations. Attempts to fix each other get dropped. Labeling each other as incompetent, threatening or wicked no longer fits the evidence. Patterns of taking excessive blame or dishing out abuse get interrupted. Resolving the baggage issues solves the problems with learning.


  1. Kia ora Tom

    "(W)e forget how we've all learned most of our problem solving skills by example."

    I'm with you on this one. But I'd also have to qualify how.

    Learning by example can happen at least two ways, with blends in between those.

    There is the copier who can regurgitate the example, a bit like the woman who is shown how to play a tune on her new guitar and always plays that tune for it's all she knows how to play.

    There is the woman who when taught her first tune on the guitar is genuinely fascinated by the way notes come together to make melodic sounds. She experiments with what she learnt and soon finds other ways to bring the notes together melodically.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Hey Ken
    Thanks for this added thought. In pondering how those differences in learning by imitation come about, here's what I came up with:

    Differences in talent/gifts: A future veterinarian may only learn how to play the notes on her oboe - she's just not into things unrelated to her passion
    Differences in the relationship with the exemplar: We going to pick up more by imitation when a bond of trust is established
    Differences in exposure to the exemplar: We'll have a better idea how to imitate another when we not only see what they do, but also got a sense of what they see, pay attention to, think through, question, and investigate.
    Differences in state of mind: We'll learn more depth, subtleties and significance by imitation when our minds are calm, centered, fascinated and receptive than when we're stressed out, hypervigilant, and guarded.

    Happy trails!

  3. Kia ora Tom!Added to those is doing what one loves doing. I find it fascinating that, as in Ken Robinson's story of someone who is an undoubted expert in a learned discipline doesn't actually enjoy practicing the discipline.

    Catchya laterfrom Middle-earth

  4. Thanks for the added thought Ken. I've had that experience of not enjoying what I'm especially good at -- many times myself.

    Take care