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Faculty Learning Community: Agenda and Notes (February 4, 2010)

Anne Dalke's picture

SUGGESTED READING: Richard Mayer, "Can Problem Solving Skills be Taught?" Learning and Instruction.
Bill Huber will facilitate a conversation on transfer.
Snacks will be served in CAMPUS CENTER 200 (new meeting location) from 2:30-4pm.

Please invite interested students to join these conversations. Those of you who hope to join via conference call should dial 218-862-6420 and then enter access code 266-9902. Notes from earlier meetings can be found at /exchange/facultylearningcommunity. Bill provided an excellent introduction to the topic of transfer and some related issues and prompts for this week's conversation in his message below:

Out of our initial conversation last semester emerged some broad threads we thought suitable for further inquiry: interconnectedness between science and other disciplines, emphasizing problem-solving skills over content, how to develop better inquirers, and overcoming math and science illiteracy.  One of our aims, as summarized in Howard Glasser's notes of that meeting, has been a practical one: developing "strategies and ways of approaching teaching."

Such is the purpose of Richard Mayer's text, "Learning and Instruction" (2nd Ed., 2008, Pearson Education Inc.).  Mayer focuses on "problem-solving transfer," which he defines as "the effect of previous learning on new problem solving" and further refines via an analytical subdivision of transfer into "specific" (where the "elements" of learning task A are "identical" to those of a new transfer task B), "general" (the tasks have no common elements but somehow learning in A affects how learners approach B), and "mixed" ("specific transfer of a general principle or strategy").  He addresses learning first and then teaching.  His method is to decompose learning into basic elements--learning to read, to understand what one reads, to write, to do mathematics, to do science--and then explore the effectiveness and implications of various teaching strategies: providing feedback, explaining examples, etc.  At each stage he reviews recent educational history, summarizes relevant research results, evaluates actual programs (such as Head Start), and applies psychological theories of cognition in an effort to identify what seems to work, what does not work, and what teaching methods might be worth pursuing further.

This week's reading is Mayer's discussion of "Teaching by Fostering Problem-Solving Strategies."  Following this (but not included with the reading), Mayer examines three recent programs designed to teach general problem-solving skills.  In the chapter summary he concludes, "systematic research seems to show that problem-solving training is most effective when the material to be taught consists of a collection of well-defined component skills; ... students tend to learn specific skills that can be applied mainly in the same kinds of contexts as the examples used during instruction; ... students also profit from generating and analyzing worked-out examples and comparing their own solution processes to those of experts; ... [and] higher-order skills can be learned along with [or before] lower-level ones."

It seems that Mayer provides, at least tentatively, specific concrete answers to some of our questions.  However, Mayer's approach might be missing some important nuances, as suggested in Joanne Lobato's overview of transfer (in "Alternative Perspectives on the Transfer of Learning: History, Issues, and Challenges for Future Research," J. Learning Sci. 15(4), 2006).  Lobato reviews criticisms of transfer: for example, that it may be based on a flawed metaphor of "carrying over" of knowledge between situations and that it depends on "assumptions about knowing, knowers, learning, and context."  She enumerates five theoretical problems:

1.      In classical studies, learner performance is gauged against the experimenter's expectations of the "right" way to accomplish the transfer task, thereby "privileging" the observer.

2.      Classical theories presume (perhaps wrongly) that knowledge can be "decontextualized:" that is, "isolated from practice" and "detached from concrete experience."

3.      Researchers often focus on the tasks presented to learners without accounting for the learners' objectives, motivations, or personal construction of meaning.

4.      The contributions of environment, artifacts, culture, context, and history may be important, raising doubts about metaphors that abstract knowledge is something that can be independently conveyed or applied.

5.      Transfer may be a dynamic process: instead of situation A causing something to be learned that is carried over to situation B, it is possible that when learners are confronted with the new situation B, they have to search for a matching situation (which might or might not be A) and, perhaps, actively change their understanding of A in attempting to deal with B.

Perhaps because of these problems, Lobato and Mayer agree that "obtaining transfer in both laboratory and school-based studies remains largely elusive."

This material therefore is both discouraging and promising: discouraging in that it shows that intuitive expectations about how our students will generalize and apply their learning might be incorrect; promising in that a deeper conceptual understanding of what transfer is and how it comes about might help us achieve our goals for creating "deep learning" in our students (and each other).

In reading and discussing Mayer, we might find it constructive to identify what underlying concepts and assumptions inform his analysis; to contemplate the similarities and differences between mathematical (or general) problem-solving strategies and the problem-solving strategies we find important in our fields and hope to teach to students; and to think about the possible usefulness to us of Mayer's recommendations.

More generally, we might wonder about the implications--if any--of all this for ideas advanced in our previous conversations.  Given the evidence that transfer, whatever it may be, tends to be specific or mixed (but not general), would that not support the traditional division of academia into separate disciplines and departments?  Given that we should "teach component skills ... within specific domains," to what extent do interdisciplinary courses achieve any general transfer of knowledge, skills, or understanding across disciplines?  In light of Mayer's finding that higher-order skills can (and should) be taught early rather than late, and given that many lower-order skills are mechanical (and therefore can be assisted or completely replaced by technology), what implications does that have for how we choose to use technology in teaching?  Finally (although we have not yet addressed this issue), focusing on the "steps in the problem-solving _process_ rather than ... on the _product_ of problem-solving" seems to have radical implications for assessment, including testing, course grades, and college admissions criteria.


alesnick's picture

Session Notes -- Please add/revise/comment

The Learning Community discussion of problem-solving, transfer, and related questions ranged widely and meaningfully.  I hope these notes will provide a start for others to add to and build on.  Thanks to Bill and everyone for a stimulating session.

Bill began by reading a passage from [author?]'s "The Art and Craft of Problem-Solving," in which a distinction is made between an "exercise" (a technical, likely not puzzling test of mastery) and a "problem" (something open-ended and paradoxical), and it is written that, for problem-solving, "Knowledge of folklore is as important as mastery of technical tools." The Meyer text focuses on the question whether the process of problem-solving transfers across contexts.  An associated question is whether we should teach it within specific disciplines or as its own course. An example of a course developed to facilitate cross-disciplinary transfer (though it was not developed with this language in mind) is Anne's and Paul's The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories. [I will find a serendip cite for this.]

Questions emerged: Do we all share a definition of the term "problem?"  And, "Can what begins as a problem become an exercise as someone gains mastery?"

More broadly, "Do we live in the same or in different universes?" (Example: In English, "problems" are not solved; rather "critical questions" are developed/posed.

Is it always best/a good idea to define and decide on terms at the outset?  Is expeditiousness in problem-solving always the primary goal?  

Is problem-solving context-specific?

Idea: If we let differences in and let them be generative, rather than regard them as having to be resolved into commonalities, problem-solving can go across contexts. [There is a discussion of this on Serendip; I will track down the cite and add it here.]

One possible shared definition: the presence of a goal.

Who does it -- individuals or collectives?

Teacher reflection and student learning are problem-solving.

To the matter of problem-solving needs to be added a consideration of students' "emotional readiness" and the role of schools/teachers in fostering it.  Meyer speaks of "concentration, confidence, and courage."

What is most important to learning problem-solving is the ability to persevere in the face of failure and frustration; willingness to struggle."

The key difference is between learners who try, fail, and give up/walk away and those who try again.  How can teachers do a better job of affirming the trying?

Shane Frederick of MIT developed a cognitive reflection test (example: if a ball and a bat together cost $1.10 and the bat costs $1.00, how much does the ball cost?) and found that people who succeeded were those who sat back and reflected, rather than jump to the intuitive, wrong answer. 

The ability to think within uncertainty and to take risks is important to academic success.  [A question: Are we teaching, and living, as if this were true?]

Is transfer the drawing on an internal database of memories/prior experiences and looking for matches?

If it doesn't occur easily across contexts, can instruction scaffold it, by asking students to do problem-solving simultaneously in two contexts?

A tension: If learning is all contextual, what do we make of the literature on IQ that suggests that people do display skills across contexts?

A question: Can we draw a bigger circle around this discussion of cognitive processes -- one that lets in more of the sociocultural, psychological, and political experiences and contexts of learning? 

And, what is the role of the teacher if we place trust in the student to learn?












Anne Dalke's picture

link to course

The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories
(course cross-listed in Bio and English, w/ "transfer" thereby built in...?)

alesnick's picture

a related recent NYT article

Hi All,
I'm looking forward to today's discussion.  In case it's of interest, I thought to send along the link to a recent op-ed piece in the NYT that raises two issues possibly relevant to a consideration of teaching problem-solving: seeming disconnects between developmental precursors and skills and play:

-- Alice

Paul Grobstein's picture

Playing to Learn

Had some trouble with the URL above.  If others do, try

Susan Engel, Playing to Learn, NYTimes


Bill Huber's picture

The URL is good: just make

The URL is good: just make sure to remove the final period.

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