RePost: How to Solve Problems
In Cultural Literacy E.D. Hirsch discusses the importance of a wealth of shared background knowledge in teaching in learning. “The more you know, the more you can learn.” He argues that as you acquire information—even through simple memorization—you create frameworks, or “schemata”, for integrating future learning. The more schemata you possess, the less effort is required to integrate new information, making it easier to learn overall.
It follows that there is great benefit to having a diversified set of schemata; the more subjects we know, the easier it is to learn. This is part of the basis for liberal education.This diversified set not only allows us easier access to broad knowledge, it also allows us to make connections that we wouldn’t have otherwise made, and understand things in different (and sometimes unusual) ways.
We explain business or relationship situations in sports terms. We try to explain a particularly vicious fight by describing wild animal behavior. We tend to take use familiar concepts to better understand the unfamiliar. One of the easiest ways to see this is in teaching.
One of the reasons Hirsch stresses the value of broad background knowledge for young children is so that their teachers have a large pool of analogies to work from when teaching new concepts. The more diverse the available connections, the more chance each student has to learn. Hirsch’s research has shown that while disadvantaged students who don’t receive this background knowledge show a learning gap that increases each year, those who receive it close that gap and achieve at a level equal to their wealthier peers.
In Wired this month (Jan. 2010) Jonah Lehrer speaks to the same phenomenon in an article about the importance of failure (“The Neuroscience of Screwing Up“) and of diverse thinking in science: “The best way to solve a problem? Try explaining it to somebody outside your field. (pull quote from dead pulp edition -ed.)” Because the other person doesn’t understand the processes that you’re working with or the terminology that you’d normally use, you have to find analogies that will quite often force you to see it in a different way.
The best problem solvers are those who are able to compare problems to situations in other fields that may seem totally unrelated, and apply those strategies to the problem at hand. A great example is from the movie A Beautiful Mind. John Nash both refuted Adam Smith and developed his own Equilibrium theory by comparing economics to dating. Through analogy he was able to see the problem in a new way and come up with a novel solution.
Do you want to be a better problem solver? Learn stuff. Not just any stuff will do, of course, but be as diverse as you can. One day you may solve a gene sequencing problem by referring to knitting, or curling, or building a house out of Lincoln Logs. Our ability to solve problems is not always limited by our knowledge of the situation at hand, but of the world at large.