Visuality

The Practice & Art of Thinking

Problem Solving – Learning and Sense Making

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Explaining how something works is important, not only for the sake of knowledge itself, but because explanations can lead to solutions and improvements of our understanding of how something works or behaves.  You cannot fix something if you do not understand what has gone wrong.  You can’t prevent cancer cells from growing if you do not know how and why they started to multiply in the first place.  To interfere in the process, you must understand the process in all its enormous complexity. You need to start somewhere and a theory is the beginning.

This post is a hybrid; it uses observations and years of teaching and solving problems as the source to attempt to explain problem solving.

A large component of problem solving is learning. When we solve problems of relative complexity, we have to go through a stage of learning. I will explore this within the context of problem solving in a future post. For now, let us accept that a good chunk of what we do, when we solve problems, involves learning. The link between learning and sense making is also made.

Learning is a natural process that originates from us and enables us to interact with the environment. Learning is something we ‘do’ – we do not acquire ‘learning’. Like breathing, learning is a normal function of living. The activity of learning originates from our desire or need to make sense of our experiences; to manage the unknown and uncertain aspects of life; and to take action in the best possible way to ensure our survival and security.

Humans are constantly making meaning. As William Perry said: we are wired to organise meaning. We make sense of our experiences and give them meaning.

We learn to make sense of the chaos and confusion of the raw uninterpreted ‘data’ surrounding us and we learn to develop ways (methods, heuristics etc.) to best respond to and interact with the environment (external and internal). We also learn to define who we are and our personal view of the world. This filters and conditions how we interact with the ‘world’ and how we choose to ‘see’ and make sense of it.

We do this thing called learning instinctively. Current research proposes that our brain is intensely aggressive and is designed to learn throughout life – learning is an inbuilt survival strategy of our species. We create meaningful patterns from the environment that we then use as constructs that make sense to enable our survival.

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unknown image source

Sense making (as explained by Karl Weick) refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sense making involves coming up with a plausible understanding of our perceived reality of the ever-changing world around us. It is a mapping process that attempts to give structure to the unknown.

This process enables us to “to comprehend, understand, explain, attribute, extrapolate, and predict”. It is a cyclical process that we go through, as we obtain more information. We refine our understanding through the patterns and associated meaning we have created and which we constantly test, verify and refine. Eventually, the complex unknown situation becomes ‘tamed’ and we reach a higher level of understanding at this point. We have learned and created new knowledge that we can call on to solve our problems. Learning from a constructivist point of view is essentially a sense making process.

From what we have seen, there are three conditions required for learning:

  • Enough raw data or experiences must be available with enough repetition and variations on themes to allow for the differences in patterns to emerge;
  • Enough time for the patterns to emerge naturally; and
  • Sufficient, prior meaningful perspectives to be able to handle new experiences productively. If these do not exist, then a longer learning process is required or this can be acquired from other people we trust (we do this with caution).

Learning is dialectical. It is a process that involves interaction through discussion and reasoning by dialogue, whether carried out internally with oneself or eternally with others. This dialectical process explores alternative viewpoints in order to develop an integrated point of view, resulting from the best aspects of all the alternatives we have been exposed to up to that point. The process goes on as new alternatives emerge and it is interactive because we generate meaning by exchanging information with the environment and integrate the meaning into a constructed whole. We construct our knowledge.

unknown image source

unknown image source

There are many aspects that affect our learning, such as past experiences (these can act as a barrier or can enhance our learning). We also have preferred learning styles (a fascinating topic on its own, which I will try and explore in a future post); cognitive styles (a term referred to more by psychologists); preferred learning strategies (visual, auditory and Kinesthetic) and our mental models, to name a few.

Learning is central to problem solving. Our ability to solve problems is affected by some of the aspects listed below:

  • Independent learners – the degree to which we are able to communicate and learn from the meaning created by others – we create meaning for ourselves without reference to others. Some people need to learn things for themselves, whilst others are quite happy to develop a shared meaning through interaction with others;
  • Ability to communicate – learning is dialectical –our ability and how rich our vocabulary is and other non-verbal expressions such as drawing gestures etc. Our ability to understand what needs to be stated and how best to communicate that.
  • Mental flexibility – how prepared we are to adjust our own learning and theories of the world around us. Some people can be quite stubborn (or mentally lazy) and are not flexible or open to adjust their opinion about their worldview. Good problem solvers are highly flexible but critical and keen to reassess their mental models. They are agile and curious. They know that the world is in constant change and, the best strategy to survive, is to make sure they adjust their knowledge to meet the new changes. Their mental models are constantly being renewed and tested against new data and information;
  • Ability to actively re-examine personal constructed theories – we place our ‘self’ at the centre of our reality. The meanings we assign to reality, together with our constructed theories about life and reality, enables us to operate in the environment – without these we are lost and paralyzed. However, at the same time, a good learner and problem solver is very mindful of the fact that these maps of reality are only temporary and approximate reality. The good problem solver will not objectify these maps but, instead, will re-evaluate them eagerly when presented with new information and patterns that emerge and will adjust reality to match the new meanings.
  • Critical thinking – the rigour in critical thinking allows us to evaluate the data, make sense of it and assess its usefulness within the context of the problem to be solved.

The above aspects are important for us to be aware of when we solve problems, especially if we want to be good at solving problems. The objective of this post was to provide background and I will be referring to some aspects covered in future posts. It was also important to make the link to sense making, as I often use the term and will be using it frequently, especially as I start to elaborate on a problem solving method we have been developing.

Author: Rui D S Martins

Creative Director and founder of MindVision Technologies

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