Do we really love problem-solving?

The literature on adult education often implies that adults learn best through problem-solving, but in my experience working with adults, I have noticed some reluctance to learning this way.

Personally, I have always been the kind of learner who loves to solve problems and try to figure out how things work. I learn connections between things, how they relate to my previous knowledge, and I learn about my own skills and limitations while doing so. So a while ago I was surprised to find that more than half of the participants on courses I was teaching, when prompted, could not think of solutions to problems presented.

I think this has a lot to do with the course I was teaching – there are specific right and wrong answers, and grading and the participants are thinking more about the grades than anything else. The other reason is that the course didn’t allow time for creativity. To solve problems, we need to be creative. And to be creative, we need to have slept enough (unless you are a surrealist painter – I heard they would deprive themselves of sleep to make their ideas more surreal) but the course was so intensive the participants were working into the night. We also need to have some brain space to use but the participants of this course were inundated with new information and they didn’t have the thinking space for anything else.

Problem-solving in adult education

In courses where the participants are not so stressed and they have the space to use their brains, problem-solving is a very good way to learn. If the participants have experience in the field, they can come up with their own problems to solve, and if they are beginners, you would need to provide the problem situation to solve. As the learning facilitator, you would ask the question ‘What if….?’ a lot to add more complex details to the situation for the learners to improve and consolidate their ideas.

For example, I was talking to a Brazilian jiu jitsu teacher the other day about whether he could do this in his classes. I asked him what he would do if one of his students said they would prefer to do a lock movement in a different way from the way he was teaching or from the traditional way. His immediate reaction was that you just can’t, because that’s not the way to do it. We discussed asking the student why they would want to do it that way. It could be a body limitation or a discomfort preventing the traditional lock. Then he would need to think of any problems this causes in the actual game of jiu jitsu. The problem can’t be ‘because it’s not right/traditional’. If the problem is that the opponent can get any advantage through a different movement, then this is the problem that needs to be solved. And in this conversation, learning takes place on a more equal level between the teacher and the student.

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