Table of Contents:

Problem solving


The chapter concentrates on problem solving issues before going on to look specifically at creative problem solving itself. The chapter presents a model of problem solving which is put together on the basis of searching the literature on the subject. It then goes on to look at the three types of problems that are encountered and points to how these are tackled in practice. Ill-structured problems in particular are highlighted since it is these types of problems which are best suited to creative problem solving. In addition to being ill-structured, they are often very complex in nature. After reviewing a common-sense approach to problem solving the chapter explains the IDEAL approach put forward by Bransford and Stein. This background to general problem solving is then followed by an introduction to the creative problem solving process.

Nature of problems

Van Gundy (1993) believes ‘a problem can be defined as any situation in which a gap is perceived to exist between what is and what should be.’ Based on this definition, a problem solving process is one whereby a situation that is not as it should be is changed into one that is as it should be. However, it should be noticed that not all problems require the use of a creative problem solving process (CPS). Indeed, in some cases a CPS process would not be as useful as an existing routine or ready-made solution. These kinds of solutions generally exist for recurring problems, and when it is possible to use one it is often much quicker and more practical.

The testimony of scientists and others indicates that the processes of problem solving are not entirely open to consciousness. One may begin by reasoning consciously and deliberately, but the solution often comes in its own time, suddenly and ‘out of nowhere.’

The mathematician Gyorgy Polya introduced the idea that there are general techniques for solving problems, which he called ‘heuristics’: procedures that often help though they cannot guarantee success. One useful heuristic is working backwards from the solution: if the answer were known, what characteristics would the problem possess? Another important heuristic is to establish sub-goals: think of some situation from which it might be easier to obtain the solution, and work towards that situation first. Still another is means-end analysis: establish lists of methods that are useful for attacking various kinds of goal or sub-goal, and work thr ough the list systematically.

Recent research on problem solving has involved computer programs that enable a computer to solve difficult problems. If the sequence of steps taken by the machine is similar to the sequence reported by human subjects who think aloud, the programme itself can be regarded as a theory of the problem solving process. The programmes developed go through the same sequences of steps (and make the same sorts of errors) as people who are thinking aloud; thus, they probably incorporate many of the principles that govern human problem solving.

It is useful to put together a general model of problem solving as a prior step to looking at the process of creative problem solving, (see Fig 3.1) Problem solving occurs in a multitude of domains and it is perhaps not surprising therefore to note that numerous models appear in the literature to describe the process. In addition, the decision-making literature is also replete with models reflecting interest in the subject in different domains. I have put together the model below to reflect some of the various thoughts and ideas that exist on the matter.

The model indicates that individuals or organisations are constantly scanning their environments. During the scan process they may detect a problem which they feel merits attention. The problem can have any one of three characteristics.

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