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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Problem v. a Task; the Distinction Matters!

I like asking my students what do they mean when they say this word “a problem”?
We use or hear this word almost every day.
But what is the meaning of it?
The natural response includes such characteristic as “a difficulty” – but is it really a difficulty if we do not really care about it?
Hence, a personal difficulty, which we need to overcome.
So, there is a specific goal we want to achieve.
But does it mean that every time when we need to have or to make, or to find something we don’t have yet, we are solving a problem?
The answer is – no.
When we need to achieve a certain goal, and we know what to do in order to achieve it, when we know what actions in what order we have to perform – it is not a problem, it is a task.
A task may be complicated, may require a long sequence of steps, some of those steps may be hard to perform, but all we have to do in order to achieve the goal is just – do.
When we need to achieve a goal and we don’t know how to do it, we don’t know which steps in which order to enact – that’s a problem.
One phrase represents the essence of the situation which we call “a problem”.
That phrase is: “Huston, we have a problem!”
When it is said, it always means that something unexpected happened, something unpredictable and there is no manual which provides the description of what to do in this situation, and the solution has to be crated basically from scratch.
If people in Huston would hear: "Huston, we have a task!", they would think: "OK, those guys just finished on task from the list and moving on to the next one. Routine".
This example provides a good illustration of the difference between “a problem” and “a task”.
When the solution is known and has to be applied  it is a task. Of course, one who needs to perform the task may need first to search for the description of the steps (using a manual, like a customer service representative who is flipping through pages of his/her manual to answer our questions when we complain about some service issues; naturally, nowadays, a book may be replaced by a computer – does not make any difference).
When the solution is not known and has to be created – that is a problem.
The key word is “created”.
To solve a problem, one must be able to create various scenaria, assess those scenaria, adjust or even toss away and create new ones, until the solution will be “found”; found – but not as the result of a search in a database of known solutions, but as result of a creative process.
Creativity is an intrinsic ability of a problem solver.
A person with no developed creativity will not be able to solve problems. Period  (although may be very good at performing complicated tasks).
Do we need more creative people than we have now?
I think - we do.
In that case, the next question is – how can we teach people to be creative?
Is creativity even teachable?
I have met many advocates for teaching students to be creative, for helping students to advance their critical thinking skills, etc.
However, all those advocates could not answer the question – how to teach it?
They were acting rather as motivational speakers.
Ask them: “How to teach creativity?”, and the answer always: “You are a teacher, you need to figure it out, my mission is just to inspire you to do that”.
Well, for more than a decade I have been teaching my students to be creative (of course, I never had a 100 % success, but I definitely helped some students to become more creative than they were before taking my course).
I know how to do that (1. please, pardon my bragging, but I am just following the leadership :); 2. of course I am not the only one who does that). but people who do and people who motivate aren't often the same people).
The following publications offer glimpses of various aspects of that teaching.

What does it mean to be "smart?"

Thank you for visiting,
Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
Education Advancement Professionals

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