JTE v2n1 - Problem Solving: Much More Than Just Design

Volume 2, Number 1
Fall 1990

Problem Solving:  Much More Than Just Design
                          Joseph McCade

               Few concepts which fall within the scope
          of technology education have received as much
          attention as "problem solving."   THE TECH-
          NOLOGY TEACHER alone contained seven articles
          about problem solving between 1985 and 1989
          (Sellwood,  1989; Thode, 1989; Barnes, 1989;
          Ritz, Deal, Hadley, Jacobs, Kildruff & Skena,
          1987, 1986a; Baker & Dugger,  1986; Forbes,
           1985).  A thorough review of each of these
          articles will help any technology teacher
          teach technology.  Many additional articles
          discuss problem solving, although they may
          not focus specifically on it.  This does not
          suggest that problem solving is a new con-
          cept; it has been listed as a goal of our
          profession since its inception.  However, the
          recent interest in problem solving does raise
          some questions: How should problem solving be
          defined in the context of technology educa-
          tion?  How important is problem solving in
          technology education?  Does problem solving
          hold a different place in a technology educa-
          tion curriculum than it did in industrial
               This article will explore design and
          troubleshooting as subcategories of problem
          solving and will argue that the systematic
          evaluation of the impacts of technology
          (technology assessment) should be considered
          an equally important category of problem
               Problem solving has been defined in many
          ways.  One simple yet meaningful definition
          describes a problem as a need which must be
          met ( Ritz, et al. 1986a).  This need could
          include, among other things,  the need to un-
          derstand the forces of nature (science), to
          alter the environment (technology), or to use
          scientific knowledge to alter the environment
               Industrial arts, in the past,  and now
          technology education programs have addressed
          problem solving.  However, even the most con-
          temporary treatment of problem solving has
          been primarily focused on designing new tech-
          nical systems or, less often, repairing ex-
          isting systems.
               Unfortunately, many authors and educa-
          tors consider problem solving from only the
          perspective of design.  In fact, some use the
          terms "problem solving" and "design" inter-
          changeably.  This approach is far too limit-
          ing.  Technological problem solving can be
          divided into three categories:  design, trou-
          bleshooting, and technology assessment (im-
          pact evaluation) (see Figure 1).
               Designing may be defined as proactive
          problem solving (Baker & Dugger, 1986).  It
          includes not only the refinement of the ori-
          ginal concept but also the research, exper-
          imentation, and development necessary to
          prepare the product for production.  Innovat-
          ing, creativity, and designing are closely
          related.  A wealth of good information exists
          concerning design (e.g.,  Nelson, 1979;  Hanks,
           Bellistron & Edwards, 1978; and  Beakley &
           Chilton, 1973).
               Troubleshooting, or reactive problem
          solving ( Baker & Dugger, 1986), involves the
          recognition that technology encompasses more
          than innovation.  The production and utiliza-
          tion of technical solutions is also a valid
          source of course content for technology edu-
          cation.  Finding and correcting problems dur-
          ing the production or utilization of
          technical solutions is troubleshooting.
          FIGURE 1.  Three forms of technological prob-
          lem solving.
               Technicians can be satisfied with abili-
          ties in design and/or troubleshooting.  How-
          ever, technologists must add the ability to
          critically analyze the impacts of technical
          solutions in order to predict possible out-
          comes and choose the most appropriate sol-
          ution to a problem.  Of course, they must
          also re-evaluate existing solutions.  Most
          practitioners in the field would agree that
          evaluating the impacts of technology is an
          important part of technology education.  How-
          ever, finding a way to integrate impact eval-
          uation into a program can be difficult.
          Encouraging students to approach the impacts
          of technology with a well structured, analyt-
          ical process (problem solving) should result
          in significant learning.
               Few would argue that teaching problem
          solving is unimportant.  Whether an important
          component of technology education curriculum
          ( Baker & Dugger, 1986) or the central focus
          of technology education curriculum ( Barnes,
           1989), current thinking in the field seems to
          strongly support the importance of problem
          solving.  Perhaps the most persuasive of
          these arguments is based upon the explosive
          growth of technology.  Because so much of
          what students need to know has not yet been
          created, it makes little sense to teach stu-
          dents the most up-to-date technology if they
          do not exit with the ability to continue
          learning ( Barnes, 1989).  The development of
          problem solving ability is a key factor in
          creating an independent learner.
                    IN TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION?
               Problem solving was an important ability
          in industrial arts because it allowed the
          student to overcome certain stumbling blocks
          which were inevitable in producing a well
          crafted product.  Problem solving in most as-
          pects of industrial arts, in practice if not
          in theory, was a spin-off skill.  Although it
          was rarely planned in a specific manner, some
          degree of problem solving ability was almost
          always imparted to students.
               Technology education changes problem
          solving from simply a means to an end into
          the end itself.  Rather than use problem
          solving to produce a product, the product be-
          comes one of many ways to teach problem solv-
               Regardless of which of the three types
          of technical problem solving are taught,
          three basic concepts should be attended to.
          These concepts are: (a) a model for problem
          solving, (b) systems to subsystems approach,
          and (c) necessary prerequisite knowledge.
               Many good problem solving models are
          available.   Most models have between four
          and eight stages.  The larger models provide
          more detail; however, a four-step model like
          the one that follows includes all the major
          steps but remains concise.  Regardless of
          which model is chosen, it should be reviewed
          with students using examples to explain each
          step: (a) identify the problem, (b) postulate
          possible solutions, (c) test the best sol-
          ution, and (d) determine if the problem is
               An understanding of a problem solving
          model can help students understand the proc-
          ess of problem solving.  However, attention
          to content should not be neglected.  Students
          who are taught to solve problems in a way
          which gives little attention to the content
          of the problem will have great difficulty
          transferring the learning to other situations
          (Thomas & Litowitz, 1986).  In such situ-
          ations, students can be taught to solve prob-
          lems without becoming problem solvers.
               Because technical systems are involved,
          an understanding of systems and subsystems is
          another important component of technology ed-
          ucation (Ritz, Deal, Hadley, Jacobs, Kildruff
          & Skena, 1986b).  A system is a group of com-
          ponents which work together to accomplish a
          common goal.  Many times the component parts
          of a system are themselves systems, thus be-
          coming subsystems.  Two concepts are impor-
          tant in relationship to this definition.
          First, it is important to recognize that each
          system or subsystem has a discernible func-
          tion.  Understanding how a system or subsys-
          tem operates is frequently important when
          solving technical problems.  Second, the re-
          lationship between systems and subsystems is
          important.  Subsystems can also affect each
          other.  The need to understand the interde-
          pendence and function of systems and subsys-
          tems will become more apparent when discussed
          in the context of design, troubleshooting and
          technology assessment.
               Problem solving is a higher level think-
          ing skill.  This type of thinking involves
          analysis, synthesis and evaluation.  These
          cannot occur in the absence of appropriate
          supporting learning (knowledge, understanding
          and application).  The cognitive domain
          taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) supports this idea
          (see Figure 2).
          FIGURE 2.   Bloom's cognitive domain
          taxonomy: "The Building Blocks of Learning."
               Simple knowledge or even understanding
          of a content area will not by itself provide
          a sufficient basis for solving problems in-
          volving that content.  However, knowledge and
          understanding are necessary for solving com-
          plex problems.  For example, any one who has
          tried to understand something about which
          they have little or no knowledge usually ends
          up with little or incorrect understanding.
          Knowledge is foundational to understanding.
          Imagine trying to apply knowledge without
          understanding.  Suppose an individual is
          aware of many types of building materials
          like plywood, drywall, nails, screws, etc.
          However, this person has no understanding of
          how these materials are used and no experi-
          ence with them.  Now imagine this individual
          attempts to build their own house; frus-
          tration would result from a missing link in
          the chain of things necessary to apply know-
               In order to explore the level of cogni-
          tion necessary for problem solving, a person
          named Hypothetical Harry will be used.  In
          search of a career, Harry decides to find out
          what skills he would need to become a build-
          ing inspector.  The first thing he discovers
          is that there are many different types of
          building inspectors: electrical, plumbing,
          structural and others.  This type of system
          (the whole building) to subsystem (elec-
          trical, plumbing and structural) is analogous
          to the type of analysis Harry will be re-
          quired to do when he inspects buildings.  In
          order to conquer the task of deciding if an
          entire electrical, plumbing or structural
          subsystem of a building is safe for occu-
          pancy, Harry will find it necessary to divide
          the problem into manageable pieces.
               The building inspector's job sounds in-
          teresting to Harry but he decides the salary
          is not enough.  While investigating the
          building trades Harry discovers that archi-
          tects can have good incomes.  However, this
          job sounds a bit more challenging.  Harry be-
          gins to realize that an architect must under-
          stand all of the subsystems of a building
          (analysis) and he or she must recombine the
          component parts of these subsystems to create
          new solutions.  In other words, an architect
          is expected to combine the subcomponents of
          electrical, plumbing, mechanical and struc-
          tural systems to meet the requirements of a
          variety of different building projects.
          Harry can quickly conclude that this job
          would require not only the ability to divide
          systems into smaller systems and then to di-
          vide the systems again and again but also the
          ability to recombine these systems.  Anyone
          who is good at recombining systems to create
          new solutions (synthesis) must first be capa-
          ble of dividing the systems in the first
          place (analysis).
               Just about the time Hypothetical Harry
          decides to go back to college in order to be-
          come an architect he wins the lottery.  Now
          Harry's career aspirations shift from making
          money to spending and protecting his new
          found wealth.  Harry must constantly make de-
          cisions about what to buy or which tax shel-
          ters are the best this week.  The reason
          Harry finds this "work" so exhausting is that
          he is constantly evaluating which of several
          alternatives is the best answer to the prob-
          lem at hand.  To make the best evaluations
          Harry must be able to break the problems into
          digestible bits of information (analysis).
          He should also be able to see potential con-
          nections between varied solutions (synthesis)
          in order to compare them.
               Harry is not the only person who must
          have the ability to evaluate.  As consumers
          and citizens every individual should possess
          these capabilities.
               Problem solving may require analysis,
          synthesis, evaluation, or a combination of
          these.  The building blocks which support
          these various levels of learning may be sup-
          plied by the teacher, sought out by the stu-
          dent, or teacher and student may share the
          responsibility for discovering these prereq-
          uisite skills.
               The more abstract forms of learning,
          problem solving included, cannot occur with-
          out the foundation of concrete learning.  De-
          spite well intentioned claims to the
          contrary, how much of what is actually accom-
          plished in education progresses beyond the
          concrete levels of knowledge, understanding
          and application?  Education which involves
          abstract learning is rare and it is certainly
          more difficult to produce and evaluate than a
          system which focuses on the retaining of
          facts.  However, analysis, synthesis and
          evaluation level thinking skills are essen-
          tial to the development of a competitive work
          force.  Figure 3 illustrates the relationship
          between this type of abstract learning and
          problem solving.
          FIGURE 3.  Levels of learning.
                         TEACHING DESIGN
               A key in teaching design is the essen-
          tial element creativity plays in this type of
          problem solving (Thomas & Litowitz, 1986).
          Every technology teacher should examine their
          teaching style to determine its effect on
          students' ability to generate alternative
          solutions to a problem.  Does the laboratory
          experience students have encourage diversity
          or demand conformity?  The product oriented,
          skill development strategies typical of the
          industrial arts philosophy rarely celebrate
          diverse solutions (Clark, 1989).  The need to
          efficiently transfer skills is one which
          bleeds over into technology education because
          a knowledge base is a prerequisite to devel-
          oping problem solving ability.  However, ef-
          ficiency should not be allowed to overshadow
          effectiveness; they should be balanced.  When
          teaching design, a strategy must be developed
          which not only tolerates but rewards alterna-
          tive solutions.  This type of problem solving
          should involve a divergent as opposed to a
          convergent thinking process (Hatch, 1988).
          Students who are encouraged to take control
          of their own learning will be much more
          likely to develop a broad rather than nar-
          rowly focused approach to problem solving.
          The idea that students can help teach them-
          selves (Villalon, 1982) is appropriate for
          teaching design.
               The temptation is present to simply
          teach divergent thinking the way one might
          teach multiplication tables.  The problem
          with this approach lies in the critical role
          creativity plays in the type of divergent
          thinking which is required to come up with
          truly unique solutions to problems.  Can one
          teach creativity?  Can an educational system
          so steeped in convergent thought encourage or
          even tolerate divergent thinking?
               A discovery method of learning can be
          utilized in the teaching of design.  When
          students are faced with the need to know cer-
          tain information, they will seek out that in-
          formation.  This requires them to work their
          way down Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning, per-
          haps even jumping around a bit filling in the
          gaps as they find need.  For example, suppose
          a student wants to assess the impact of a
          coal gasification.  First, the student must
          satisfy him or herself that they understand
          what coal gassification is (knowledge and
          comprehension).  Second, the student should
          begin to ask questions like: how is coal con-
          verted to a gas, why is this process desira-
          ble, what type of pollution can be eliminated
          by coal gassification, and will new problems
          be created?  In this second step the student
          breaks the problem down into managable chunks
          (analysis).  Finally, the student brings the
          answers to all the smaller questions together
          in order to answer the question: considering
          both the positive and negative aspects of
          coal gassification, what should be done with
          this technology (synthesis and evaluation).
          This method casts the teacher as guide and
          facilitator.  The student becomes an investi-
          gator (Sellwood, 1989).  The following illus-
          trates a design brief in which the student
          uses this investigative approach.  When using
          this approach, care must be exercised to in-
          sure that each student obtains the prerequi-
          site knowledge.  As has been mentioned,
          proper attention to context is necessary if
          students are to transfer the problem solving
          process to new situations.
                          Design Brief
                     Introduction to Control
               A paper shear can cut fingers as easily
          as it cuts paper.  Design a control system
          which will reduce accidents by forcing the
          operator to press two buttons at once to
          start the shear.  Follow the steps below in
          finding your solution.
          1.  Identify and document what you will use
              as the components of your control circuit
              (i.e., signals, decisions, actions).
          2.  Identify and document what type of logic
              you will use in the decision section of
              your control circuit.
          3.  Draw a wiring diagram for your solution
              and discuss it with the instructor.
          4.  Wire the circuit you have designed; have
              the instructor check the circuit before
              testing it.
          5.  Evaluate your solution; return to a pre-
              vious step if necessary.
               The design brief becomes a launching
          point for the student.  It is intended to de-
          fine the assignment without being too limit-
               Troubleshooting involves a systematic
          approach to locating and correcting problems
          in existing systems.  A much more structured
          approach can be applied to teaching trouble-
          shooting than can be applied to teaching de-
          sign.  Usually the knowledge and
          understanding necessary can be identified by
          the teacher and delivered in a structured
          fashion.  This process begins when the
          teacher helps the students identify the sub-
          systems involved in the system under study.
          Next, the function and operation of all sub-
          systems must be completely explored.
          Finally, a troubleshooting system can be
          taught.  Troubleshooting combines three fac-
          tors: (a) interrelationship of systems and
          subsystems, (b) subsystem function and opera-
          tion (what and how), and (c) a search strat-
               Each subsystem has a function which the
          student must know.  This answers the
          question:  What does the system do?  Students
          must also understand the operation of each
          subsystem, or how each subsystem performs its
          function.  Without an understanding of what
          each subsystem function is, it becomes very
          difficult to determine if the subsystem is
          functional.  Equally problematic is an at-
          tempt to isolate a malfunction within a sub-
          system with no knowledge of how the subsystem
          performs its function.
               Most subsystems are affected by the
          other subsystems within the same overall sys-
          tem.  An understanding of the interrelation-
          ships of each subsystem to be troubleshot is
          essential to success.  An inefficient search
          strategy cannot only waste time but may cause
          the true source of a problem to be over-
          looked.  A binary search strategy is the most
          efficient search method.  If each successive
          step in the search divides the remaining al-
          ternatives in half, a problem can be isolated
          very quickly.  Good diagnostic charts are or-
          ganized in this fashion.  In fact, students
          who are accomplished in the three factors in
          problem solving will be able to write their
          own diagnostic charts (see Figure 4).
               Assuming that a communications class
          contains a unit on telecommunication, a part
          of that unit might include telecomputing.
          The networks computers use to communicate
          would probably be an important consideration
          within this sub-unit.  One good way to teach
          students about computer networks would be to
          ask them to create a troubleshooting scheme
          for isolating problems with such a network.
          The teacher might provide written resources
          to help students identify the systems:  (a)
          purpose, (b) inputs, (c) outputs, (d) compo-
          nent subsystems, and (e) interaction with
          outside systems.  In this way, students can
          be allowed to "research" the information
          needed to solve this problem.  Such an as-
          signment follows:
                   Creating a Diagnostic Tree
               A diagnostic tree is a device that
          guides the troubleshooter through a series of
          steps which efficiently and correctly iden-
          tify a malfunction.  Creating a diagnostic
          tree requires not only a thorough understand-
          ing of the system involved but also an under-
          standing of how to efficiently search for a
          problem.  Complete the following steps in
          creating your own diagnostic tree.  Carefully
          document your work.  Every diagnostic tree
          should contain three basic components: pre-
          liminary checks, system output test, and
          problem isolation.  Proceed as follows:
          1.  Identify the purpose of the system.
              Identify the input and output points of
              the system.
          2.  Determine how other systems might effect
              the system under consideration.
          3.  Identify all subsystems (components which
              contribute to the function of the system
              under consideration).
          4.  Determine how each subsystem performs its
          5.  Devise and conduct a test which will de-
              termine if supporting systems are func-
              tioning.  (This is your first set of
          6.  Devise and conduct a test which will de-
              termine if the entire system is func-
              tional.  (This is your output test and
              will be a second test.)
          7.  If the system is not functional, devise
              and conduct a test which will split the
              system in half (or as nearly in half as
          8.  Repeat step seven until the malfunction
              is isolated.  Correct the problem.
          9.  Retest the output of the system.
          NOTE: Devising the test for a system or sub-
          system requires an understanding of what the
          function of the system is; you are determin-
          ing if this function is being achieved.  An
          understanding of how the function is achieved
          is also important because a test will usually
          grow out of this knowledge.
               Although the evaluation of impacts of
          technical systems is an important philosoph-
          ical consideration in technology education,
          it is often difficult to find the time or a
          method to address this point.  Not only
          should time be made in the curriculum for
          work with impact evaluation, but also stu-
          dents should be guided during their experi-
          ence by a systematic method of inquiry which
          stresses the development of critical thinking
          skills.  Students should practice evaluation
          frequently enough to begin to synthesize
          these experiences into a coherent technolog-
          ical value system.
               Wise producers and consumers of technol-
          ogy must be capable of the type of critical
          thinking necessary to see beyond shallow,
          short-term considerations and select the most
          appropriate technologies.  Well thought out
          arguments are built in much the same way
          technical systems are designed.  Discrete
          pieces of information or arguments are com-
          bined in a logical fashion which leads to a
          well supported conclusion.  This is similar
          to the relationship between systems and sub-
          systems.  In fact, one way to explain analyt-
          ical thinking is to consider it the ability
          to identify and/or create both the discrete
          pieces of information and the logical links
          between this information.   Once the logical
          links between discrete pieces of information
          FIGURE 4.  Partial computer network system
          diagnostic tree.
          be identified, correct conclusions can be
          made.  Critical thinking skills involve the
          analysis of the logic behind an argument.
          Eventually students should progress beyond
          analyzing others' arguments to producing
          their own.  An example of such an assignment
          Technological Impacts of Transportation Sys-
               Directions:  You may sign up for a topic
          below.  Prepare a one page summary to be sub-
          mitted the day of your presentation.  The
          presentation should include a brief (5 min-
          utes) discussion of your topic and conclude
          with a short class discussion.  The emphasis
          of this assignment is on your ability to draw
          logical conclusions.  Collecting technical
          information will help you draw conclusions;
          however, it is not the ultimate purpose here.
          Once you have collected the information, use
          it to come to a logical conclusion.  You will
          be evaluated on how clearly the facts and
          your arguments support your conclusion.
          Present both sides of the issue, then take a
          stand and justify it.  The discussion follow-
          ing your presentation should involve the con-
          troversial nature of your topic.  Have two or
          three questions prepared to start the dis-
          cussion.  Include this sheet when you turn in
          your summary.
               Evaluation:  Your presentation will be
          evaluated on the following three criteria:
                                     Possible  Actual
           A.  Organization and Prese5tpoints
           B.  Content and Persuasiv10epoints
           C.  Written Report        5 points  ______
                                    20 points  Total
          o   America's bridges die of neglect.
          o   Transportation systems and the greenhouse
          o   Alternative fuels and the internal com-
              bustion engine:  A step forward or side-
          o   The role of the automobile in the trans-
              portation systems of the future.
          o   Trucking vs. rail transportation.
          o   The impact of the trucking industry on
              rail and water transportation.
          o   The automobile and mass transit--the bus.
          o   America's roadways:  An investment which
              limits options for future transportation
          o   The automobile, a deadly weapon.
          o   Drunk driving:  More should be done/we
              are doing too much now.
          o   The automobile, a form of recreation:
              Auto racing.
          o   A love affair with old cars:  Antique
              cars--are they safe?
          o   Automotive air pollution:  Still a prob-
          o   Asbestos and the transportation industry.
          o   The impact of the automobile on our na-
              tional economy.
          o   Marine transportation and pollution; oil
          o   The automobile and stress.
          o   Seat belts and school buses.
          o   Only insured drivers may legally drive.
          o   State inspections:  Necessity/annoyance.
          o   Other topics by approval of instructor.
               As the field of industrial arts evolves
          into technology education, problem solving
          should take on an increasingly important role
          in the curriculum.  Students cannot be con-
          sidered "technologically literate" until they
          understand that technology involves making
          changes to our environment to solve problems
          or meet human needs.  Equally important is
          that students appreciate that the solution to
          one problem often creates other problems
          and/or other benefits.
               Design has long been an important part
          of industrial arts.  However, design must be
          integrated in all aspects of technology edu-
          cation.  Students will be much more likely to
          appreciate the important role technology
          plays in their lives if they have been pro-
          vided with the opportunity to become design-
          ers and solve technological problems.
               Unfortunately, problem solving and de-
          sign are sometimes thought to be synonymous.
          When designs are produced, some troubleshoot-
          ing will generally occur, unless the proto-
          type works perfectly the first time.  This
          approach, if it is the only experience with
          troubleshooting, neglects the fact that most
          people's experience with technology involves
          trying to solve problems created by technolo-
          gies which they did not design themselves.
          Students should also be given the experience
          of locating and correcting problems in exist-
          ing technological systems.
               Many of the problems involved with tech-
          nology go well beyond conceptualizing, creat-
          ing and maintaining technological systems.
          They involve the fact that technological sol-
          utions almost always create some impacts
          which are undesirable and sometimes unfore-
          seen.  It is not enough to simply recognize
          that these problems exist, or even to discuss
          them in detail.  A systematic method of iden-
          tifying and dealing with these impacts must
          be developed.  The increasingly powerful
          technologies of the future will almost un-
          doubtedly create extremely dangerous impacts
          on society unless these technologies are
          carefully controlled.  The way for this con-
          trol to occur in a democratic society is to
          prepare the majority of the electorate to
          make wise choices about technology.  This re-
          quires that today's students demand consider-
          ation of the impacts of technology when they
          become adults.
               In order to prepare the type of techno-
          logically literate citizenry necessary to
          control technology, three things must occur.
          First, people must view technology as the way
          in which we change our environment to meet
          our needs.  Second, it must be understood
          that when technological solutions are imple-
          mented new problems are created.  Finally,
          identifying these impacts, both before and
          after a solution is identified,  and balanc-
          ing these impacts against the original goals
          of the technology must become a way of life.
          Joseph McCade is Assistant Professor, Depart-
          ment of Industry & Technology, Millersville
          University, Millersville, Pennsylvania.
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          Permission is given to copy any
          article or graphic provided credit is given and
          the copies are not intended for sale.
Journal of Technology Education   Volume 2, Number 1       Fall 1990