Friday, December 4, 2009

Problem-Solving Leading to Self-Renewal and Change

Guest Blogger: Dana Flint

Thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you.

Not long before his tragic death in 1951, Albert Barnes sent a couple of pages of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (pp. 177-178 of the 1916 edition, if you want to know) to his good friend Horace Mann Bond. Those pages emphasized the central role of thinking as problem-solving, and highlighted some educational emphases that Barnes hoped Lincoln would adopt. He highlighted the now familiar problem-solving steps of an initial sense of a problem, observation and investigation of factors, construction of solutions, hypotheses, and conclusions, and testing those constructions. In the spirit of Dewey, he understood that this process of problem-solving towards more “intelligent” adjustments (to use Dewey’s term) would be repeated again and again in the constant self-renewal of human living, and, Barnes hoped, in the self-renewal of the educational process at Lincoln. That was then. Nowadays, it seems that this is what we commonly do in our instructional approaches. Here are a few examples from my FYE class this semester:

  • I wanted students to come away with a usable skill associated with each subject area in the course, for example, the module on Research. Previously, I brought students to a Library computer lab to receive instruction on searching Library databases. This year I continued in an analogous manner with an in-class demonstration using my laptop and a projector. But somewhere along the line I had a “sense of a problem.” Do students come away from such demonstrations with a usable skill? How could I know? So I got them to define some problems which were of interest to them: abortion, war and technology, global warming, and violence and Grand Theft Auto. Then I showed them a web site that demonstrated the format of annotated bibliographies, and asked them to submit an annotated bibliography, with five varied references, as a demonstration of their skill in doing research. Well, I am still in the process of “testing” (that is, assessing) this solution.
  • Second, I thought the usable skill associated with the Speech module would be pretty easy: Let the students make speeches before the class and have another group of students evaluate them. I have done this before, but this semester I got a surprise. Instead of speeches, the students did PowerPoint presentations with the lights out and which ended with a movie, of course. The trouble was that there was a lot more high tech and a lot less speaking. So I went with the flow and found a web site containing a PowerPoint presentation on how to do PowerPoint presentations, and I presented this PowerPoint presentation while instructing the student-judges to critique the PowerPoint presentations of the students, using what they had learned about PowerPoint presentations. This seemed to represent a double process of self-renewal going on at instructional and learning levels.

Am I right in assuming that nowadays we commonly see the process of teaching and learning as a process of facilitating ever more educated adjustments to ourselves and world? Would the “Fitness for Life” course be another such example of this process, or would it not?


  1. I'm not clear about your concept of "self-renewal" or "educated adjustments to ourselves and world," but I don't think the HPR 103 BMI or "Fitness for Life” class was the result of that kind of scientific or logical problem-solving process; neither was the change proposed at the 12/4/09 faculty meeting. If it was, we need to demonstrate, document and maybe discuss it.

  2. Wouldn't the following, by Gary Rotstein of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, be one answer to the question (as to whether the “Fitness for Life” course is an example of this process)?

    'There was a time when college was a fun place to make mistakes of young adulthood....and intake of fatty, good-tasting, non-nutritious food seemed an essential part of the collegiate experience. Ah, the good old days. An example of the more rigid lifestyle facing today's collegians came this month from the University of Kentucky, which expanded a tobacco ban to include the outdoors of the entire campus. The favorable Kentucky Kernel editorial drew the following comment, however, from one irate reader: "Well, so what's next? Obesity? Will the administration try to regulate fattening behaviors? Mandatory calisthenics for BMIs over 25?" The person commenting above had better not be contemplating transfer to Lincoln University near Philadelphia.' (By Gary Rotstein, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 30, 2009)

  3. Dana, thank you so much for bringing up the whole concept of change and "educational self renewal." To me that is why teaching is so frustrating yet so rewarding--every new class, every new year forces us to rethink what we want to teach and how we want to teach it and, as you say, what usable skills we want our students to learn. Usable skills connected with the academic discipline of writing have certainly changed as writing tools have changed. I have, for instance, added a PowerPoint presentation to my list of essay assignments since professionals need to know how to write in that medium today, and students definitely don't get it "right" automatically. Another usable skill is how to get the most out of one's word processor--use and abuse of grammar/spell check, tips on Find/Replace for editing, how to change screen view for proofreading, etc. Another is how to write for a document designed to be read on the Internet--all the new layout considerations, short paragraphs, use of color and spacing and graphics, etc. It was a lot easier back in the day when I just had to worry about teaching run-on sentences and the like!

    I'd be interested in hearing the kinds of changes others have made as the "usable skills" in their disciplines have changed.