No, you can't (necessarily) teach someone how to solve problems

Tags: Personal Stupidity

M' very good friend Nathan Gropman (with whom I work ... wait, no, with whom I am co-employed - he works while I skive off) has postulated that you can teach a person to solve problems, with the benefit of experience and desire. I always considered this to be a question of, "Can this person think for themselves?" but perhaps Nathan is closer to the crux of the matter.

So Nathan says,

I believe that problem solving skills can indeed be learned. It comes with experience. Every problem is different, and every solution brings with it a new set of learnings that assists with the next problem to solve. But, it is a 2-way street and you must want to learn from your experiences in order for your skills to be enhanced.

I think the question of whether you can learn these skills is not experience or desire, it's whether your brain can physically make the connections required to achieve the learning.

I too have worked with a number of people whose problem solving skills are sorely tested just trying to work out which part of the body goes into their trousers in the morning. Some of them need written instructions. I've also worked with people who can, and will, attack a problem like a terrier at a pork chop.

Nathan is definitely one of those people. He's intelligent and articulate, and passionate about his work. If the problem can be solved, he will solve it.

But I still think he's wrong this time.

I think there are actually four categories of people, with respect to problem solving. It seems to be roughly the same demographic sets as we encounter when considering whether people can think. I don't know what to call them, so I'm going to number them 1 to 4 (note that type 4 will not get the status of their own section).

Type 1 People - People who can problem solve already

For the purposes of our discussion here, these people are pretty uninteresting. We cannot determine with these people whether problem solving ability is inbuilt or taught.

Type 2 People - People who can be taught how to solve problems

These are the people who are great to work with as they learn and mature. They are passionate about what they do, have a genuine interest in what they are trying to achieve, and actively work to understand the "bigger picture".

As a result, these people can be taught a problem solving technique, and they will take that technique and apply it to multiple problems, even if the problem is different. The first time it will be applied just the same way it was taught. Maybe the second and third times. But sooner or later that desire for the "big picture" will take over and the person will extend the technique. First by a little, then by a lot. And once that has happened, the person has learned a raft of techniques, and has started down the path of "learning to solve problems".

Sometimes this initial teaching is done by parents with their child, and other times it's done by a more experienced colleague who thinks he or she sees the fire burning in the eyes of the pupil.

These are the people who can be taught to think.

Type 3 People - People who will never be able to solve problems

Type 3 people seem to make up a large portion of the "junior IT" space. They might make up a large portion of many industries, but I've no experience outside the IT industry so I'll not cast aspersions.

Type 3 people are not the group of people who seem not to care. There are plenty of THOSE people out there, but they are part of our fourth group of people, which I shall conveniently name "Wastes of Time".

No, Type 3 people genuinely do care, but they are more passive about their caring. Where Type 2 people seek out ways to improve their knowledge, Type 3 people wait for it to come to them. They have no mental framework in which they can place a new skill to improve their other skills.

As a result, these seem to be the people who need to be told every single time they see an error to take the error message apart and put the key words and error codes into Google searches. The same people who, despite solving the same Outlook problem day in, day out for 3 years STILL refer it to the level 3 support team before they go and follow the procedure written in 40 point type on the first page of the "Idiot's Guide to Solving Outlook Problems in Company X" manual.

The absolute BEST of these people will possibly learn one technique in 5 or 10 years. But having done so, they have exhausted their ability to learn. They will never be a problem solver, for they do not take the approach by the scruff of the neck, shake it to learn its secrets then tear it apart and meld it with their previous ideas and techniques to create new methods to solve problems. In short, they do not THINK.

This, I think, is nature not nurture, for no matter how much nurture is given or how much experience and desire there is, nature steps in and the could-be problem solver is no more.

And that is why you can't necessarily teach someone to solve problems, only a single problem.

You can lead a horse to water, stick its head under the surface, twist its ear and kick it in the sides. It still doesn't have to drink.

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