Development of Problem-Solving Skills
Suppose you're driving alone at night on a long, dark stretch of freeway that is infrequently traveled when you suddenly hear the familiar "thump-thump" of a very flat tire. You pull onto the shoulder of the road and begin the unpleasant task of changing a tire, illuminated only with the light of the moon and a small flashlight. Carefully, you remove the lug nuts and place them in the hubcap by the roadside. A speeding motorist whizzes past you, hitting the hubcap and scattering the lug nuts across the dark freeway and out of sight. Here you sit, a spare tire in one hand, a flat tire propped against the car, and no lug nuts, on a dark night on a lonely stretch of freeway. To make matters worse, a cold rain is beginning to fall. What would you do?
One of my students told me that this incident actually happened. He went on to elaborate that the flat tire occurred alongside a large mental institution near our college. While the hapless motorist sat pondering his problem, he attracted the attention of several "residents" of the institution, who gathered near the motorist along the chain link fence that separated them. One resident offered this solution to the motorist's problem: Remove one lug nut from each of the other three tires and use them to attach the spare. Each tire should hold securely with three lug nuts until the motorist reaches a gas station. The grateful motorist thanked the institution resident and then asked, "How'd you think of such a good solution to this problem?" The resident replied, "I'm not dumb, I'm just crazy!"
I doubt if this exchange ever really occurred. After this problem appeared in the first and second editions of this book, students from all over the country wrote to tell me that they heard the same story, but with the poor motorist breaking down near their school. In any case, virtually everyone agrees that the resident offered a good solution to the motorist's predicament. Why was it so difficult for the motorist to solve the problem? Why did the solution seem so easy and obvious after it was revealed? How did the resident come up with such a good solution?