Toward a Unified Theory of Problem Solving: Views from the Content Domains

Toward a Unified Theory of Problem Solving: Views from the Content Domains

Toward a Unified Theory of Problem Solving: Views from the Content Domains

Toward a Unified Theory of Problem Solving: Views from the Content Domains

Synopsis

One of the most active fields of educational research in recent years has been the investigation of problem-solving performance. Two opposing views of current research -- one suggesting that there are more differences than similarities within different domains, and the other stating that there is great similarity -- lead to a variety of questions:

• Is problem solving a single construct?

• Are there aspects of problem-solving performance that are similar across a variety of content domains?

• What problem-solving skills learned within one context can be expected to transfer to other domains?

The purpose of this book is to serve as the basis for the productive exchange of information that will help to answer these questions -- by drawing together preliminary theoretical understandings, sparking debate and disagreement, raising new questions and directions, and perhaps developing new world views.

Excerpt

One of the most active fields of educational research in recent years has been the investigation of problem-solving performance. While the early studies were generally concerned with puzzles, chess, cryptarithmetic, and similar problems that are not "semantic rich," subsequent research has increasingly focused on problems within various content domains, especially mathematics and physics. Recent research in medicine and certain other domains has strongly emphasized the context specificity of the problem-solving process, suggesting that there are perhaps more differences than similarities among problem-solving performances in different domains. On the other hand, there is great similarity in many of the findings of these studies. These two opposing views of current problem-solving research lead to a variety of questions. Is problem solving a single construct? Are there aspects of problem-solving performance that are similar across a variety of content domains? What problem-solving skills learned within one context can be expected to transfer to other domains?

The story is told of three blind men who encountered an elephant in the jungle on a dark night. One felt of the trunk, one felt of a leg, and one felt of the tail. When asked what they had discovered, the first reported that an elephant must be like a great snake; the second said the elephant resembled the trunk of a great tree; and the third proposed that the beast was hard and thin like a whip. At least two issues explain the apparent confusion of these observers. First, their isolated observations do not appear to cohere, and second, there is specialization without communication among the specialists.

Until recently, research in problem solving was very similar to this state of affairs. Recent research in different content areas, however, has begun to reveal a host of commonalities. In April of 1988, a group of leading researcher educators was convened at the annual convention of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in New Orleans to share research findings and to identify common results. Individuals representing the present state of knowledge of problem-solving research within each of several different domains of expertise participated. The symposium, which bore the same title as this book, drew considerable attention. Participants in this symposium were then invited to present their responses to the thoughts of the other presenters in New Orleans at the 1988 annual convention of the Intemational Cognitive Science Society in Montreal. Based on these presentations, most of the participants developed position papers; these comprise the chapters of this book. One additional chapter (Perez) was . . .

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