Problem solving (page 2)
Problem solving can be thought of as the bringing together of perception, language, and reasoning to overcome barriers and reach a desired goal. Problem solving occurs at all age levels but becomes more elaborate as children mature. An example of problem solving at the preschool level is the child who observed his mother place some cookies in a high cupboard. After his mother left the room, he looked about, saw the kitchen chair, immediately moved it over to the cupboard, climbed on it, and retrieved the cookies. Although he had climbed stairs many times, he had never before used a chair to climb in this fashion. This is an example of problem solving by insight, a sudden "aha" experience.
Although early psychologists thought problem solving involved primarily trial and error and insight, recent advances in information-processing theory have provided a new way of looking at this form of mental activity. From an information-processing point of view, problem solving has four components: the encoding of information, the construction of strategies, the automatization of these strategies and their generalization. As children mature, so too does their level of information processing and thus their problem solving.
When a child is confronted with a problem, such as adding the numbers 7 and 10, he must first encode this information by storing it as mental representations in short-term memory. Then he must call upon a strategy to overcome the barrier, two different numbers, and attain the goal, the sum. One strategy is to simply count all of the numbers. The child will first count from 1 to 7 and then continue to count another 10 to arrive at the sum of 17. Older children will use a somewhat different strategy and start with the larger number, 10, and then count upwards to 17 from there.
As children practice these strategies, they become increasingly automatized: automatic and unconscious. As adults, for example, we no longer count when confronted with the addition problem; the answer is almost immediate. We are not aware of having used any strategy; the solution seems obvious. However, this is only because the strategies have been automatized, and we are no longer aware of them. We see a similar phenomenon with Piaget's conservation problems. After the child has attained conservation and recognizes that a quantity remains the same despite a change in its appearance, it seems to the child that the equality is perceptually obvious rather than a product of mental activity.
Although automatization is very adaptive, it sometimes presents problems in education. As adults who have automated so much of our learning, it is sometimes difficult for us to appreciate the learning difficulties encountered by children. Teaching children to read is a case in point. As adults, reading has become so automatized that it appears to us that the meaning of the word rests upon the page rather than in our heads. This makes it difficult for us to appreciate the problems reading presents to children who have not yet automatized decoding. When beginning teachers try to instruct young children, they often adopt what might be called the "look harder" theory of reading. If children will only look harder, they will "see" the word, be able to read and understand it. We have to be aware of automatization when teaching children.
The final stage of problem solving is generalization. After the child has learned successful problem-solving strategies and these have become automatic, he begins to extend these strategies to new situations. The ability to generalize strategies is in part a function of the child's level of development. When children and adolescents are presented with problems that require rather simple strategies, adolescents are more able to shift strategies than is true for children. Adolescents' readiness to shift strategies is a function of their more elaborate mental abilities.
Children's limited ability to generalize strategies and to shift them is demonstrated in other investigations. In one study, children and adolescents were confronted with a game that involved pushing three levers so as to attain the most rewards, tokens that could be exchanged for toys, candy, or money. The levers were programmed so that one paid off 33 percent of the time, another paid off 66 percent of the time, and the other paid off 10 percent of the time. The winning strategy was to push only the 66 percent lever. Adolescents quickly adopted this strategy after trying out several others. Children, however, stuck to a "win stick, lose shift" strategy and were never able to give this up and adopt the simpler, more lucrative strategy.
The years of childhood, therefore, are witness to a very impressive transformation of children's intellectual powers. In perception, language, reasoning, and problem solving, children make great advances over what they were able to achieve as young children. They still have limitations, but they have come a long way. Children make similar enormous advances in their fund of knowledge and skills.
© ______ 1994, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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