Many people believe creativity begins with finding many solutions to a problem. What if that’s actually at the end of the process? Dr Manu Kapur is turning the creative thinking process on its head and exploring the mechanics of problem finding – and we believe he’s on to something!
Philosophers and scientists alike have claimed that problem finding is important but in truth, we don’t really understand what the process looks like.
That’s a gap Associate Professor Manu Kapur, Head of NIE’s Learning Sciences Lab, hopes to plug – both in terms of our understanding of the problem-finding process as well as the practice of Math in schools.
So What’s the Problem?
In traditional problem-solving situations in schools, the Math problem is either fully specified or known to a great degree. The assumption is that students have sufficient knowledge to solve these problems because they have been taught and the goal is specified.
With problem finding, however, the problem itself is not known. We may not even have enough knowledge to solve the problem, which is the case in many of the challenges we encounter in life.
“We have a very good sense of the processes of problem solving, but we don’t quite have a theory or an understanding of what the process of finding a good problem looks like,” says Manu.
So instead of giving students a set of data and asking them to calculate something definite, we give them the data and say: What problems can we generate based on this data? He gives the example of soccer league tables. Instead of asking them to invent various measures to determine who the best team is, students can ask and answer mathematical questions of their own.
“That’s a very different enterprise, where students have to use whatever knowledge they have, both formal and informal knowledge, to really start thinking.” This, says Manu, provides a huge opportunity for developing mathematical thinking and invention.
“The mere act of defining the problem, even though you’re asking students to invent multiple solutions, constrains mathematical thinking,” he explains. “You would be surprised by how many important problems you could define just given the data, which you would miss if you just gave students a problem and asked them to solve it.”
The Process of Problem Finding
So what does this process of problem finding look like? And what implications does it have for schooling and education? That’s the area of research that Manu wants to start looking into.
– Manu Kapur, Learning Sciences Lab
We know a lot about the processes of problem solving in the cognitive and the learning sciences, but not about problem finding, says Manu. Yet every time we talk about innovation, inventiveness, or breakthroughs, people say it’s thinking about a problem to solve that’s more important than actually solving the problem.
“If you look at the history of scientific revolution, or the history of innovation, invariably it’s about finding a good problem to solve, and yet we don’t have an understanding of that process,” explains Manu.
Interestingly, the process of solving a problem is much easier than finding a useful problem to solve. Problem finding is a very long, divergent and iterative process – you don’t know until you try many things, until you finally stumble upon a good problem to solve.
“Once you’ve defined a good problem to solve, it’s easy to solve the problem!” Not that solving a problem is not difficult, Manu qualifies. But it’s not as difficult as finding an inventive, original and meaningful problem to solve.
Developing Inventive Thinkers
“There’s a lot of rhetoric around creating students who are inventive, entrepreneurial, innovative, creative,” notes Manu. “I think the more we understand this process, the more we will learn about how to use this process more effectively for education.”
He differentiates between inventing your own problems and inventing multiple solutions to given problems. The latter is good and necessary to train people to solve problems – we need workers like that in the workforce.
“But if you want the leaders and the innovators, then you want these people to think of important problems to solve, so that as a society we move higher up in the value chain.”
While it is still early days, Manu is hopeful that addressing this problem will not only help students learn Math better, but also help develop the dispositions of creativity and inventive thinking. For the moment, he is working on designing problem-finding activities that can help develop this skill.
“This is really about inventing your own problems and then developing the skill to see which problems are better than others. If we can develop this skill in our students, then they will be much better prepared for the 21st century.”