Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Problem solving: technology and evolution

Thinking about complex situations and the way we solve problems that emerge from them. It's connected to my course design for this year. Do I want to focus on content or process for my students? In the long run it's much more important that I coach them on how to problem solve, how to be creative thinkers, and how to innovate. To paraphrase Julia, no one will ever ask them if they know the parts of a flower, or which came first, the Neolithic or the Chalcolithic, during a job interview.

Inspiration came from two places this morning. First, reading the amazing introductory chapter of J. Stephen Lansing's "Perfect Order," a study of irrigation systems in Bali. He sets up many questions in what I consider to be a must-read introduction for people who are interested in complexity and how to study it. What struck me was the question of whether the complex systems he studied were a solution in themselves or a device for finding solutions. As he puts it, "had the subaks [indigenous organizations empowered to manage rice terraces and irrigation systems] solved a problem, or built themselves as a problem solver?" Lansing makes the case for subaks as a multi purpose problem-solving mechanism, one that inadvertently, though very effectively, mimics evolutionary processes in biological systems.

The second inspiration came from a tweet by John Maeda, "...design matters increasingly more than technology..." I translate this, perhaps too liberally, to mean process over content. Technology can solve a problem but design is a problem-solving mechanism. 

My course design for this year's group of non-science major undergraduates at Boston University follows a theme I developed over my sabbatical last year, contemplative learning. Through various exercises in close reading and consideration of texts, topics, objects, and processes, I am encouraging my students to explore, problem-solve, and innovate as they develop self-awareness and an awareness of the natural world. A lofty goal perhaps, but one worth pursuing. I want to teach them to think broadly as they build collaborative models of understanding.

Things came home to me this summer when I was teaching in the sustainability program at the Boston Architectural College. Do we need our graduates to be builders or problem solvers? How do you teach what's important in an emerging discipline, one that will devise solutions to problems yet unseen? As I schlepped students through urban neighborhoods, cajoled them to build ideas (literally) with cool zometool blocks, and pushed the envelope in discussions about what "sustainability" means to them, I struggled to nourish these students with the tools to think about and solve problems apart from the usual charrette environment of BAC studios. In a subsequent discussion with my colleague and friend Shaun O'Rourke, we discussed the importance of teaching problem solving skills, a suite of behaviors much closer to evolution than to technology.

No comments:

Post a Comment