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Problem Solving Research Paper Solution Project Points

















































Problem Solving Techniques

Robert Harris
Version Date: January 5, 2002

As with creative thinking, flexibility is a crucially important feature in problem solving. Many of these techniques you will begin to use regularly for each major problem you address. Others you will use selectively.

Assumption Articulation

A first and frequently overlooked step in problem solving is to identify the assumptions you are making about the situation. Many of the assumptions will be hidden and unrecognized until a deliberate effort is made to identify them. Often it is the unrecognized assumption that prevents a good solution. However, before we get too critical of assumptions, we should note their value and necessity. So we begin there.

Assumptions are Necessary

Assumptions and constraints are necessary for three reasons:

1. They set limits to the problem and thus provide a framework within which to work. These limits might include constraints of possibility, economics, or some other desired narrowing.

2. Assumptions reflect desired values. values that should be maintained throughout the solution. For example, in punishing criminals, we assume that we are still concerned about their humanity, so that, say, torture with electric prods will not be considered as a possibility for punishment.

3. Assumptions simplify the problem and make it more manageable by providing fewer things to consider and solve. A problem with no assumptions is usually too general to handle.

Assumptions are Often Self-imposed

In spite of the necessity of having assumptions, many assumptions produce self-imposed limits. That is, the impossibilities or fixed constraints in a problem are often not imposed by nature or the laws of physics, but by ourselves through our understanding of the situation or through the desire to focus the problem.

In assumption articulation, then, our goal is to identify the assumptions being made and to determine the following:

1. Is the assumption necessary? If not, can or should it be dispensed with?

2. If the assumption is not necessary, is it appropriate? That is, many rather arbitrary assumptions and constraints are nevertheless desirable.

For example, when we say, "We have only two weeks to solve this problem," those two weeks may be entirely appropriate as an outside time limit for generating and implementing the solution, simply because the problem’s importance in relation to the rest of life warrants no more than those two weeks.

Examine the Assumptions Behind your Problem

1. Make a list of assumptions. As you think about your problem, force to the surface every given, taken for granted, assumed fact about the situation you can think of. Many, if not most, assumptions do not really fit into categories like those in the checklist below. Instead, most assumptions are statements about reality that we believe to be true. Many of them are "obvious" and we normally would not think to question them. Yet that is exactly why we so often get blocked when we try to solve a difficult problem.

For example, the design of women’s swim suits was long constrained by limited technology. How can we make a new design that will stand up to the rigors of swimming in salty or highly chlorinated water? Only a few fabrics are strong enough and printing or decorations don’t hold up well. The completely obvious and absolutely unquestionable assumption being made here is that most women do a lot of swimming in their swim suits. Of course, dummy, why else would they buy them? Some brave soul, who was probably called a fool, decided to question this assumption and do some research. It was discovered that 90% of women’s swim suits never get wet (except perhaps in the laundry). This was quite a revelation for suit designers, because it opened up a whole new world of materials and designs that would stand up to sunning but wouldn’t take swimming. Who would have thought that anyone would buy a swim suit marked "dry clean only"?

When you have thought of all the miscellaneous assumptions you can, you might find it helpful to use a checklist of assumption areas like this:

A. Time. How quickly or slowly am I assuming it will take? Can the solution be sped up or can more time be found somewhere?

B. Money. Are the limits of money I’m assuming necessary? Can I find more money? Or, more creatively, can I do it for less money or no money? Can I get someone else to pay? Money is a common block to the solution of many problems. We say, If only I had the money, I could do it. Often, however, we can find ways of accomplishing the same thing with less money or with none or with other people’s money. Don’t let the money psychology block you. Example: We need computers and hard disks but we don’t have the money. Possibilities: donated funds, find lower price, get manufacturers or dealers to donate the parts.

C. Cooperation. Am I assuming that certain people will be in favor of the solution, support it, help implement it, when in fact they might not? Or am I assuming that certain people will be against it when they might not be?

D. Physics. Are the laws of physics interfering? The problem is "impossible" of solution? What at first seems physically impossible may on reflection not be so after all. Remember the pear in the bottle, "moving" the Statue of Liberty, or even launching rockets out of the atmosphere.

E. Law. Is the solution blocked by law? Can the law be changed, circumvented (for moral purposes only), or even broken (for the right cause)? Maybe it can be reinterpreted to permit the solution. Example: Bible clubs in high schools. According to one high school’s interpretation, the Freedom of Association law permits students to get together to pray but not to advertise their prayer group. Can this regulation be skirted by word of mouth advertising or by holding a prayer meeting right after another non-prayer meeting?

F. Energy. We can devote only so much energy to any given solution. Is the amount assumed to be appropriate or maximum really so? It’s better to expend a little more energy to solve a problem well the first time than to have to redo the entire thing after a half-energetic solution.

G. Cost/Benefit. How much is it worth to solve the problem? Costs can include an investment of time, energy, money, emotion, or other resource–mental effort, eyesight, whatever.

H. Information. Is the information available correct? This assumption often proves wrong. Double check the so-called facts surrounding the problem. Note that in most cases, more information can always be obtained. Are we assuming that all available information or all pertinent information is at hand? New information often changes the entire appearance of the problem?

I. Culture Binding. Is the solution being limited because of attitudes in the culture or practices of recent history? How did or do other peoples solve the problem? These ideas that are socialized into us often go unexamined. Why do we balk at eating squid or dogs? Up until about seventy-five years ago, it was common for men to marry women fifteen or twenty years younger than themselves. Now we consider that unusual and some people even consider it wrong, just as we consider older women marrying younger men unusual.

2. Focus your assumption identification on the crux or sticking point of the problem. You may be making an unnecessarily limiting assumption about something right at the point of blockage.

For example, let’s say your problem is to clean the mineralization off the water faucets in the bathrooms of your house. You have gone to a hardware store or home center and tried every cleaner in the housewares department but nothing has been satisfactory. You think, "I’ve used every household cleaner I can find." Examine your assumptions: I’m assuming that household cleaners are found in the housewares department. Is that true or necessary? What about other kinds of cleaner that might be found in the automotive, plumbing, hardware, or garden department? Also, what about products not even described as cleaners but that might clean off the mineralization? The solution you finally come up with is to use an automotive chrome bumper cleaner or perhaps some household vinegar to clean off the mineralization and then to apply some car wax to the chrome to protect it from future build up. Your assumptions about store locations, product names and types and uses have all been challenged and found not necessary.

3. Look over your written statements of the problem and your lists of constraints and write out a list of the assumptions behind each item. In these three steps, you’ll have a three-part list:

A. General assumptions. These are the assumptions you make without thinking or realizing that you have made them. Some of them are necessary, but some may not be. Write out even the most obvious ones.

B. Assumptions at the crux. These assumptions are usually made consciously, but are not often examined critically to determine whether they are necessary or not. Again, write them out so that each one may be examined and tested individually.

C. Assumptions determining the constraints. These are the assumptions about cost, time, effort, size, results and so forth that you make in order to establish the boundaries of the solution. Most of them are desirable. Sometimes one or more of them will be made too hastily, though, so that they deserve reexamination as well as the other kinds.

An Example

Let’s say you are the manager of a factory that makes portable electric generators. Your product is largely bolted together at final assembly by workers using air wrenches. The wrenches, like those you hear screaming in auto repair shops, make a lot of noise, hurting the workers’ hearing and job satisfaction. Your problem is, "How can we reduce the noise made by these air wrenches?"

Note that as with most problem statements, the problem as stated implies certain solutions. If you simply accepted the problem as stated, you would probably think of some possible alternatives like these:

  • put silencers or mufflers on the wrenches
  • build a sound proof room for the wrench assembly
  • install lead curtains around the assembly area to soak up the noise
  • install a sound "canceler"
But instead of this, you decide to do some assumption articulation. Here are some of the assumptions being made:

1. Air wrenches are noisy.
2. We must use air wrenches to put the parts together.
3. People must use the air wrenches.
4. We must use wrenches.
5. The fastening must take place in this area or in this factory.
6. Bolts must be used to hold the pieces together.
7. The employees don’t like the noise.

As you think about these assumptions, some new ideas come to you:

1. Air wrenches are noisy. Are all air wrenches equally noisy? Can we buy a quieter brand? Is there a "silent air wrench" being sold?
2. We must use air wrenches to put the parts together. Why not use manual wrenches, or electric wrenches, or hydraulic wrenches?
3. People must use the air wrenches. Why not use robots? Can we use the wrenches less? Rotate employees so that each one uses the wrenches just a little each day.
4. We must use wrenches. Why not use other tools? Nut drivers?
5. The fastening must take place in this area of the factory. Why not move it outside? Subcontract it? Put it in a special soundproof room?
6. Bolts must be used to hold the pieces together. Why not rivets? Spot welding? Adhesive? Screws? Clamps? Mold some of the pieces together so they need not be bolted or fastened at all?
7. The employees don’t like the noise. Get employees who like noise? Who don’t hear it (like deaf people)? Give them ear muffs? Play loud music to mask the noise?

Note that ideas like robots, deaf employees, adhesive bonding and so on would not be suggested by the original form of the problem statement, which is based on several perhaps unnecessary assumptions. A little assumption articulation breaks our thinking out of these restraints and allows us to see some new possibilities.

Techniques for Approaching a Problem

Here are several ways to attack a problem, each way designed to clarify the problem, suggest alternatives, or break a fixation. You will want to experiment with the applicability of these for various situations.

Entry Points

An entry point is, as Edward de Bono has said, "the part of a problem or situation that is first attended to." In our linear, traditional problem solving mindset, this usually means a particular point–usually the most obvious–on the front end of the problem. However, there is no reason that some other point cannot be chosen as an entry point, nor is there any reason that the problem cannot be approached from the middle or even the end. Let’s look at each of these.

1. Front end entry points. Most problems are attacked on the front end first, which is to say, by stating the problem. However, there is really more than one front end because a give problem can be attacked from any one of several angles. Too often we assume that the first front-end angle that comes to mind is the method of approach, the only way to attack the problem. But that is not so.

Example problem: How to keep rain off of you while you walk on the street.
Possible entry points:
1. Inadequacies of current umbrellas. (Suggests "improve the umbrella" as a problem direction.)
2. Irritation of having to carry an umbrella. (Suggests "develop easily portable umbrella.)
3. Let the government do it. (Suggests public works items like awnings, free taxis, underground corridors.)
4. Let the individual do it. (Why not just get wet? Why does getting wet matter? What are the problems? Do they really need to be solved?)
5. Walking. (Why walk? Why not ride? Conveyances?)
6. Street. (Why go out on the street in the first place? Why not stay at home? Keep out of the rain? Solve the problem that made you go onto the street in the first place. E. g. to get a video, why not TV or cable movie or read a book or make popcorn and talk about rainy days?)

Notice here that what seems to be just one problem actually has several possible entry points, and depending on the point chosen, entirely different solutions will result. Edward de Bono comments about the importance of choosing an entry point:

Usually the obvious entry point is chosen. There is no way of telling which entry point is going to be best so one is usually content with the most obvious one. It is assumed that the choice of entry point does not matter since one will always arrive at the same conclusions. This is not so since the whole train of thought may be determined by the choice of entry point. Example problem: ATC’s cause many injuries and deaths each year.
Possible entry points:
1. They tip over easily. (redesign them?)
2. They are not toys. (license users? require age minimums?)
3. Riders don’t know how to use them safely. (educate riders?)
4. Many head and spinal injuries result. (roll bars? seat belts?)

Problem: How to have secret conversations in the bugged embassy in Moscow. Possible entry points:
1. conversations can be heard (notes, sign language, special room)
2. diplomats must share information (disinformation?)
3. the whole building is bugged (leave building? erect internal room?)

2. Beginning at the end. When a particular solution state is clearly defined, a problem can often be more easily solved by starting with the solution and working backwards toward the problem, filling in the necessary steps along the way.

The classic example is the problem: Divide a triangle into three parts so that the parts can be put together to form a square. That’s very hard. But if you start from the solution end, with a square, it’s easy to divide it into three parts all of which form a triangle.

Example: How do you count the number of people in a stadium that’s over ninety percent full? Count the number of empty seats and subtract from the number of seats in the stadium. Easier than counting people.

Example: How do you improve your relationship with your parents when you’re not quite sure what’s wrong with it–what the problem is? Start at the end, with the solution. Envision how you want the relationship to be and work backwards toward a discovery of the problem.

Whenever the solution or goal state is clearer than the problem, then changing the entry point to the end may be the best approach. Start with the goal or solution and look for ways to work back to the problem.

3. Somewhere between the beginning and the end. After all, there’s no law that says you have to start at one end or the other. So why not start in the middle?

Ancient Greek epics typically start in medias res. in the middle of things, and later go on to fill out preceding and succeeding action. You can do this in problem solving. It’s, again, sort of the "ready, fire, aim" approach.

For example, say you want to put up a new building. Why not assume that the funding and planning have already been done and begin with the construction phase, which contractors to hire, etc. Then work in both directions–backward toward planning where to put the building and how to get the money, and forward toward arranging for tenants.

Note that you can really begin at any point on this alleged continuum, with location, tenants, architect, and work in both directions:
building type—architect—location—contractors—tenants

Movies are put together this way all the time. The "obvious" order is

but many movies get actors first, then a producer, then a script, etc.

Beginning in the middle has some risks, but it’s especially good for getting things done quickly and for beginning to do something even when you’re not quite sure of either the problem or the solution. It’s the kind of thing that will sometimes get you labeled as rash and hasty and sometimes as brilliant and visionary.

Rival Hypotheses

A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a collection of data. A rival hypothesis is an alternative explanation for the same sets of data, another way of explaining the same results or events. Often the hypothesis is a statement about causation: the data indicate that X caused Y or that B occurs when A is present. It is critically important to remember, however, that in the realm of hypothesis and explanation, the data do not speak for themselves; they must be interpreted. The act of interpretation involves many difficulties, including those of experimenter bias, the confusion between correlation and cause, and non-random sampling.

Dangers of Having only One Hypothesis

The danger of limiting ourselves to one hypothesis to explain a collection of phenomena is twofold.

1. Some evidence will be ignored. If we are focused on a single hypothesis, we will overlook as not relevant any information that does not bear on the truth or falsity of the hypothesis. However, such information might bear on the truth or falsity of some other hypothesis.

For example, if our hypothesis is that suspect X burglarized the Turner’s house, we will focus on evidence that helps to establish or disprove our theory. As a result, we will probably overlook the fact that the story told by the Turner’s son does not add up. That’s just an ignorable anomaly. If, on the other hand, one of our hypotheses is that the Turner’s son might have faked a burglary and stolen the missing items himself, then the difficulties in his story will not be overlooked.

2. We may become emotionally committed to our hypothesis. The idea of falling in love with a pet theory is not limited to problem solving, of course. Wherever it happens, the lover begins to search for and select out only the evidence that supports the hypothesis, ignoring or subconsciously filtering out information that argues against the pet.

For our example, here’s a story: An experimenter carefully conditioned a flea to jump out of a box when a bell was rung. Then he pulled off the first pair of the flea’s legs. The flea still jumped out of the box. So he pulled off the second pair of legs. The flea could still jump out. Finally, he pulled off the last pair of legs. This time, when the bell was rung, the flea didn’t jump our of the box. The experimenter concluded that his theory was correct: "When all the legs of a flea have been removed, it will no longer be able to hear."

To avoid these two problems, then, we should attempt to generate as many rival hypotheses as possible for each set of data, and then test each of them against the known facts.

Rules for Generating and Testing Hypotheses

1. The hypothesis should account for all possibly relevant data. An explanation that covers only part of the data or that is in conflict with a major fact, is not a good explanation. Remember, though, that especially early on, all explanations will have problems and will fact some seemingly conflicting data. Facts are refined and clarified as better information becomes available. So don’t throw out all but "perfect" explanations; you won’t have any.

2. Simpler explanations are usually to be preferred over more complex explanations. This is the principle of Occam’s razor, discussed in Human-Factor Phenomena in Problem Solving.

3. More probable explanations are usually to be preferred over less probable ones. Many things are possible; fewer things are probable. It is possible that ancient astronauts built the pyramids, but it is more probable that the Egyptians did.

4. The consequences following from the truth of the hypothesis must match the facts. If, for example, you hypothesize that a bomb destroyed an airplane and caused it to crash, you will expect to find bomb residue as a consequence of this hypothesis.

When you first read how facts match a theory, you might be tempted to think, "Why, yes, that must be it." However, when you make the effort to research (or even take a few moments to generate on your own) a few rival hypotheses–alternative explanations–the original hypothesis becomes suddenly less persuasive. As with many other things in life, When you have a choice of only one, it seems to be the right choice; but when you have a choice of many, your taste improves. There is even a Biblical passage relevant to this issue: "The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and examines him" (Proverbs 18:17).

When you begin to examine a proposed explanation for some data, ask yourself, "What other variables are involved that might also account for the result?

Try It Yourself

Rival Hypotheses. What rival hypotheses can you think of for each of these explanations?

1. Speed Kills? In 1973, when the national speed limit was 65 miles per hour, there were 55,000 automobile-related deaths. In 1974, when the speed limit was reduced to 55 mph, deaths declined 20 percent. In 1975, they declined 2 percent more. However, in 1976, as motorists began to ignore the speed limit and drive at 65 once again, deaths increased. The conclusion is clear: lower speed limits save lives.

2. Wedded Bliss? Many studies over long periods have established that married people are generally healthier than single (never married, widowed, divorced) people. Lung cancer, stroke, and coronary heart disease are all lower in married people. Married men live longer than men who do not marry. One researcher attributes these facts to the harmful consequences of loneliness. Are there any other possible explanations for these differences?

3. Coffee Coffin? A recent study has found that men who drink more than six cups of coffee per day have a much higher heart attack rate than those who drink fewer than six cups a day. Clearly, drinking coffee causes heart attacks. Or is there a rival hypothesis?

Role Playing

Role playing consists of several techniques, having in common the use of the mind to imagine a different reality, to change what you have to what you want.

1. Mental Practice. Before attempting a solution or doing something–taking a test, driving to a new area, writing a paper, asking for a raise–practice the situation mentally.

For example, Abraham Lincoln imagined what he would do and say as president before he was ever elected. Dr. Charles Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame always mentally practiced his surgical operations before doing them–he would find a quiet spot and then go through the whole procedure in his mind: cutting, asking for instruments, examining, suturing. Many athletes rehearse their upcoming performances mentally to gain confidence and familiarity with the moment of performance.

Visualize the problem and your solution to it and you’ll be able to solve it or do it better. One woman imagined driving on the left side of the road, turning, passing, merging, etc. before taking a trip to England. When she finally got to England, she found that she could drive easily–it was already a familiar experience.

2. Becoming another person. The second form of role playing is to imagine that you are someone else–involved in either the solution or the problem.

A. Problem Person. Imagine that you are the litterbug, the reckless, drinking driver, or the short tempered, hard to live with friend. What makes you this way? What might improve you? What are the nuances of your personality?

B. The Solver. Imagine that you are an expert who can solve the problem with your special knowledge. What do you know and what do you do? Solutions take direction from past experience. They derive from what is already done or known. We go with the familiar and use what we have learned–or what we imagine we have learned or experienced.

For example, suppose you must build a canal. Imagine first that you are not a canal builder but a pipeline maker. How would he build the canal? (Perhaps by using reinforced half pipeline sections?) Now imagine that you are a tunnel maker. Now how would you solve the problem? (Perhaps by using an inverted tunnel?) Now imagine that you are a swimming pool builder. How would you solve it? (Perhaps by using steel rebar and spray-on gunite?)

3. Mental metamorphosis. In this kind of role playing, you change yourself into the problem thing–become a bearing, a helicopter, an electric current, a germ. Michael Faraday imagined that he was an atom under pressure and thereby developed his electromagnetic theory.

For example, suppose you want to find a solution for rusty and leaking gasoline tanks. Imagine all the attributes of the situation: the metal tank, its color, temperature, touch, the leak in it, the sound of the dribble of gasoline as is plops to the sandy soil under the tank. What does it feel like to be a tank in the sun, to feel your side leaking, to smell the wet sand/gasoline combination under you? What do you taste like? When the service man puts the wrench on your valve, how does it feel? Do your insides itch as they rust? What would help that? A coating? Does the gasoline running down your side bother you? What would soak that up or seal it off?


A model is a representation or pattern of an idea or problem. That is, a model is a way to describe or present a problem in a way that aids in understanding or solving the problem. Models serve several purposes:

The Purpose of Modeling

1. To make an idea concrete. This is done by representing it pictorially or symbolically. We are very visually oriented creatures, and it is easy to bring about understanding or conceptualization through an image–much the way analogy works, only now you use a picture, drawing, map, boxes, circles. A drawing can show a relationship, connection, arrangement, hierarchy, and so forth much more quickly than words alone can.

Another use of representative modeling is to enhance creativity by converting an idea into something that can be experienced by the senses. "Okay, this salt shaker is our blocked plan, and these French fries are the people opposing the plan by holding up the rules–this napkin–in front of it. Well, what can we do? Lift the salt shaker, move it around, over, through, empty it."

Many a problem solver has drawn on a napkin, arranged the food on his plate, scratched a stick in the sand, sketched a form of some sort, or even played with some children’s blocks.

2. To reveal possible relationships between ideas. Relationships of hierarchy, support, dependence, cause, effect, etc. can be revealed by constructing a visual model.

For example, what is the relationship between faith and reason? This can be shown by one block on top of another (a hierarchy), one circle inside another (one concept as part of the other), two blocks side by side, one each on a balance, and so on. Each model suggests a different relationship, each easy to remember.

A fact that needs special emphasis is that the model one uses for understanding will have a profound effect on perception and conceptualization. In fact, to a large extent, a model will determine your perception of an idea or problem and control your thinking about possibilities, relationships between parts, and so on. That’s why multiple models are often highly desirable: they allow a person to think of the same concept in several different ways without the unconscious controlling influence that a single model might have.

Another example: The saying, "Ready, fire, aim" seems funny and illogical to most people because they automatically assume a rifle or pistol or arrow model, and with such a model, the saying doesn’t make sense. These people are trapped by their own thought processes and automatic modeling. However, if we construct a different model–that of a machine gun, fire hose, laser beam, flame thrower, heat gun, fire extinguisher, blowtorch, hammer drill or whatever, then the saying makes great sense after all.

We have to be careful, then, how much we let our models control our thinking.

3. To simplify the complex to make it manageable or understandable. Almost all models are simplifications because reality is so complex. The whole economy, weather system, human personality, geological structure of the earth, air flow over airplane wings–all are too complex to be treated as is, so models are constructed that present simplifications that can be treated. Simplification is both benefit and danger, and when dealing with a model, one must always be sure not to forget that the model and reality might not match perfectly–and sometimes not well at all.

4. The main purpose of modeling, which often includes all of the above three purposes, is to present a problem in a way that allows us to understand it and solve it. That is, by seeing the problem in a different form or from a different angle, we can gain the insight necessary to find a solution. We take a problem and simplify it, make it visual, and provide a familiar pattern.

Types of Models

1. Categories. Models can be put into one of two categories, conceptual and structural. Of the types listed below, many of them can fall into either category depending on the use made of them.

A. Conceptual. Models used for concretizing or reifying an idea, used to aid conception or understanding. These can be ultimately symbolic or arbitrary, whatever is necessary or useful. Also models to aid memory or teaching and relationship models.

B. Structural. Physical models of physical structures–oil refineries, DNA helixes, buildings, architectural model, a new kind of record player or bicycle. A model is almost always constructed before a prototype is made for a product and models are usually made for all large construction projects.

2. Types. These are not fixed and exclusive boxes–they often overlap, as in visual symbolic.

A. Visual. Draw a picture of it. If the problem is or contains something physical, draw a picture of the real thing–the door, road, machine, bathroom, etc. If the problem is not physical, draw a symbolic picture of it, either with lines and boxes or by representing aspects of the problem as different items–like cars and roads representing information transfer in a company.

Visual models are among the most effective because we are highly visually oriented beings. Remember Confucius’ saying that is now a cliche but a true statement nonetheless: A picture is worth a thousand words.

B. Physical. The physical model takes the advantages of a visual model one step further by producing a three dimensional visual model. Again, you can use a real model or a symbolic one.

C. Mathematical. Many problems are best solved mathematically, by using calculations for speed, area, projected income, national unemployment. Thinking beyond three dimensions visually or four dimensions physically is very difficult. But with math, ten or fifteen dimensions are no problem. Ideas of speed, acceleration, and accelerating acceleration are often more understandable mathematically.

Example problem: Whom to hire. A mathematical model, such as a decision matrix, enables the thinker to quantify subjectivity and to be sure that all considerations (or criteria) are taken into account to the degree desired. The expected value calculation is another mathematical method of making a choice based on probable effects and preferred outcomes.

D. Metaphorical or Symbolic or Analogical. Remember what we said about metaphor and analogy, that the unfamiliar becomes understandable by comparing it to the familiar. That’s how this kind of modeling works. Both understanding and structure can be established for a problem by using a metaphor or symbol. Here are some examples useful kinds:

General Paradigms

1. System model. A system is a collection of interrelated elements working together to accomplish a common goal. The parts are input, processing, [storage], output, feedback, and control. Example systems are house heating system with thermostat, circulatory system.

Example problem: Interpersonal relationship improvement.
input: words, actions
processing: reactions
output: happiness, mutual support or discontent
feedback: communication (words actions)
control: change of processing (reactions and actions and output)

2. Design model. Design is planning with a concern for pattern and overall harmony. Component parts are identified and worked together into a whole. The key to design consideration is to plan so that the result to be an effective presentation. (For more details on design, see Chapter 7.)

Example problem: Vacation. Design a vacation
Sketch out parts–what should be included in a vacation? How will one part affect other parts? How does travel method affect sightseeing? Boat, rail, plane, care, walk, bike ride, etc.

3. Construction model. This model emphasizes sequential building. Part by part.

Example problem: Term paper. How can I build this paper? Foundation? Walls? Roof? or Beginning, ending, drawings, outline, other parts? Order of information?

4. Recipe model. This model emphasizes ingredients and proportions, with perhaps some consideration given to minor items that add "spice" or "flavor" to a project. The Japanese seem to use the recipe model in making many of their consumer products, from stereos to cars. Many cars include a toolkit, first aid kit, sometimes a trouble light–things that American manufacturers sometimes think of negatively as gimmicks or gadgets. The recipe model could be a list or formula for success. Great in advertising, products with features, certain kinds of fiction, etc.

Specific Metaphors:

1. Garden model. How is problem or solution like a garden? Vegetative, growing, expansive, fruitful, weedy, nurturant, bug infested, etc.

2. Machine model. How is problem like a machine? Parts working together, parts worn or broken, energy input or driving force, work output?

3. Symphony model. How like a symphony? Conductor? Harmony? Soloists? Percussion? What is the music they are playing? What orchestrates the interaction of the parts?

4. Human body model. How like a body? What makes it move? What is life energy? What are hands, feet, mouth, eyes, ears?

5. Vehicle model. Ship, plane, boat, car, train, blimp, bike, skateboard. What powers it? Who are passengers? Where going? What are its wheels?

Other metaphors useful for modeling are sculpting, movie making, an island, the ocean, a computer.

Using Criticism and Suggestion

Making use of the observations of critics to improve a plan or idea is a fairly obvious technique, but one that is not often used simply because most people don’t like criticism. Our ideas are our precious children and to be told that they are ugly or defective is painful and offensive.

However, it is possible to work around the ego sensitivity we have by renaming our criticism seeking into "suggestion seeking" and by viewing the procedure as a formal technique for exploiting the minds, experiences, and ideas of other people. What better way to get other viewpoints than to ask real, other people?

Basic Guidelines

Remember that in problem exploration it was suggested to talk over a problem with others to get insight into it. Well, now we come to the preliminary solution idea and do the same thing. Here are some suggestions:

1. Choose in advance a fixed number of people you will talk to, to reduce fear and make the process more formulaic (which will make it less ego damaging). Four to six is usually a good number.

2. Frame your request for criticism in a positive way. so that the criticizer will have to suggest improvements rather than just point out defects.

For example:
A. I have an idea to sell concentrated or dehydrated apple juice. Can you think of some ways to improve it?
B. I’m asking several of my most thoughtful friends how I can improve this idea for making concentrated fruit drinks. Can you think of anything?
C. I’m working on the problem of reducing shipping costs for drinks by concentrating or dehydrating them. I wonder if you could help me find a solution? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. (This puts the other person in a solution mindset rather than a criticism mindset.)

3. Ask all kinds of people. not just people knowledgeable in the area. Ask children, even. Remember the value of mind stimulation, where an idea may not be directly useful but may suggest something else.

4. When you get more confidence, you can ask for an analysis of defects or inadequacies.

For Example:
A. What am I missing? What am I not thinking of? What am I not taking into account?
B. What don’t you like about this? What’s wrong with it? How would you have done it differently?

5. Use the dual method of asking for suggestions. There are two ways to operate the idea and suggestion technique.

A. Ask each person to improve the original plan or suggestion. Go to several people and propose the same plan and ask for input about it. This way you will get several different responses to the original.

B. After each suggestion, alter the idea to incorporate the suggestions and criticisms, and then present the new idea to the next person for suggestion and criticism. That way, the idea builds and improves with each criticism. The drawback is that certain other fundamental suggestions may be eliminated because the subsequent suggesters don’t see the original idea.

It is important for you as a creative thinker to see yourself as independent and separate from your ideas. Don’t get your ego so involved in an idea that you will be unwilling to alter it if you discover or are told about needed changes. And don’ be unwilling to abandon it if you discover a better idea. Keep a whole sackful of possibilities that can be rotated or combined to form the best solution, and put your pride in solving the problem, the result, not in the particular solution path you are currently thinking of.

Searching Techniques

Heuristic Methods

A heuristic is a guide, a rule of thumb, a learn as you go strategy, typified by trial and error. It involves choice, hunch, knowledge, and a lot of creativity. It’s the way most education works. However, no heuristic can guarantee a solution. A heuristic simply increases the probability of finding a solution. An example heuristic method follows.

1. Trial and error. The trial and error search involves the non use of directional information. That is, the search proceeds without any sense of choice or likelihood of one path over another. Trial and error can be made much more efficient if it is systematic rather than blind, that is, when a record of attempts and failures is kept so that the same path or solution is not tried more than once. So take good notes.

Algorithmic Methods

There is another kind of technique called an algorithm that can guarantee a solution. An algorithm is a list of set procedures, a recipe, a formula, or set of exact directions–computer programs and math formulas for finding volumes and areas are algorithms. There are a couple of common search algorithms:

1. The maze algorithm. This algorithm guarantees that you will be able to solve or walk through a maze. All you have to do is follow the same wall all the way through. In practical terms this means put your hand on the wall and keep it there as you walk through. Either hand and either wall.

2. The split-half method. This powerful technique is used for finding a problem or phenomenon along any linear system. It is used by electricians, plumbers, mechanics, electronics technicians and others to find trouble in equipment. (e.g. faulty doorbell, leak in pipe). The method involves going immediately to the halfway point in the linear system and checking to see if the problem or a symptom of the problem appears there. If it does, the problem is in the first half of the system. If it doesn’t, the problem appears in the second half. Next, the investigator goes to the half of the system where the problem is now know to occur and checks at its halfway point to see if the problem or symptom appears there. The answer eliminates another quarter of the system. Note that in just two steps, two checks, three quarters of the system has been eliminated from possibility. The halving continues until the problem is located. This is much faster than random checking or than by starting at one end of the linear system and proceeding toward the other end.

  • Someone is stealing oil from our transdesert pipeline; where?
  • Our packages are arriving from Germany all beat up; where are they being damaged?
  • Somewhere along the manufacturing line our product is getting dented on the corner; where is this occurring?
  • Somewhere between here and Sacramento the river is being polluted; where is this happening?
  • Somewhere in our spy network information is leaking to the Soviets; who is doing it?
  • Somewhere in the process of transmitting data from the factory floor to the main office, information is being lost or garbled. Where is this happening?
Note that many systems are or can be perceived as linear, whether the thing moving through them is water, paint, food, information, television sets, smog, whatever.

Other Techniques

Here are some general techniques for help in solving problems.

1. Public Solution. Post the problem on a bulletin board or circulate it in a newsletter, memo, or whatever written medium is in use in your organization or group. Make a note that suggestions and solutions are solicited and that ideas should be sent to you.

This technique causes public discussion of the problem at an intellectual rather than personal level. If your problem is employee absenteeism, poor quality parts, financial difficulty, or something similar, the public discussion will tend to focus on solutions rather than on blame attribution. If the problem does not derive from people difficulty, as in how to pack light bulbs more safely or how to hold books upright on partially filled library shelves, posting the problem can hook solutions that may have been applied to a similar problem elsewhere. And of course, the basic strategy behind posting a problem is that it gets several minds working on the problem, both independently and in discussion with others. People in the organization will talk about the problem in their idle moments.

During group problem solving discussions, posting a problem on the board is useful because it (1) stimulates interest and discussion in the problem, (2) makes people willing to take responsibility for the problems of others, and (3) develops problem solving attitudes in all members of the group.

Problem Solving Hints and Wisdom

1. Take time to examine and explore the problem thoroughly before setting out in search of a solution. Often, to understand the problem is to solve it.
2. Breaking the problem into smaller parts will often make solving it much easier. Solve each part separately.
3. The resources for problem solving are immense and ubiquitous.
4. You can always do something.
5. A problem is not a punishment; it is an opportunity to increase the happiness of the world, an opportunity to show how powerful you really are.
6. The formulation of a problem determines the range of choices: the questions you ask determine the answers you receive.
7. Be careful not to look for a solution until you understand the problem, and be careful not to select a solution until you have a whole range of choices.
8. The initial statement of a problem often reflects a preconceived solution.
9. A wide range of choices (ideas, possible solutions) allows you to choose the best from among many. A choice of one is not a choice.
10. People work to implement their own ideas and solutions much more energetically than they work to implement others’ ideas and solutions.
11. Remember the critical importance of acceptance in solving problems. A solution that is technologically brilliant but sociologically stupid is not a good solution.
12. When the goal state is clear but the present state is ambiguous, try working backwards.
13. Procrastinators finish last.
14. Denying a problem perpetuates it.
15. Solve the problem that really exists, not just the symptoms of a problem, not the problem you already have a solution for, not the problem you wish existed, and not the problem someone else thinks exists.
16. A maker follows a plan; a creator produces a plan.
17. Creativity is the construction of somethings new out of somethings old, through effort and imagination.

Other Tools for Creative Thinking and Problem Solving

About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com

Problem Solving and Decision Making: Consideration of Individual Differences
Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
William G. Huitt

Citation: Huitt, W. (1992). Problem solving and decision making: Consideration of individual differences using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Journal of Psychological Type, 24. 33-44. Retrieved from [date] http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/papers/prbsmbti.html

Improving individuals’ and groups’ abilities to solve problems and make decisions is recognized as an important issue in education, industry, and government. Recent research has identified a prescriptive model of problem solving, although there is less agreement as to appropriate techniques. Separate research on personality and cognitive styles has identified important individual differences in how people approach and solve problems and make decisions. This paper relates a model of the problem-solving process to Jung’s theory of personality types (as measured by the MBTI) and identifies specific techniques to support individual differences .

The recent transition to the information age has focused attention on the processes of problem solving and decision making and their improvement (e.g. Nickerson, Perkins, & Smith, 1985; Stice, 1987; Whimbey & Lochhead, 1982). In fact, Gagne (1974, 1984) considers the strategies used in these processes to be a primary outcome of modern education. Although there is increasing agreement regarding the prescriptive steps to be used in problem solving, there is less consensus on specific techniques to be employed at each step in the problem-solving/decision-making process.

There is concurrent and parallel research on personality and cognitive styles that describes individuals’ preferred patterns for approaching problems and decisions and their utilization of specific skills required by these processes (e.g. encoding, storage, retrieval, etc.). Researchers have studied the relationship between personality characteristics and problem-solving strategies (e.g. Heppner, Neal, & Larson, 1984; Hopper & Kirschenbaum, 1985; Myers, 1980), with Jung’s (1971) theory on psychological type serving as the basis for much of this work, especially as measured by the MBTI (Myers & McCaulley, 1985).

One conclusion that may be drawn from these investigations is that individual differences in problem solving and decision making must be considered to adequately understand the dynamics of these processes (Stice, 1987). Attention must be paid to both the problem-solving process and the specific techniques associated with important personal characteristics. That is, individuals and organizations must have a problem-solving process as well as specific techniques congruent with individual styles if they are to capitalize on these areas of current research.

McCaulley (1987) attempted to do this by first focusing on individual differences in personality and then by presenting four steps for problem solving based on Jung’s (1971) four mental processes (sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling). Another strategy would be to consider first the problem-solving process and then to integrate individual preferences or patterns within this process. This second strategy is the perspective of this paper.

The purpose of this paper is to relate a model of the problem-solving process to a theory of personality type and temperaments in order to facilitate problem solving by focusing on important individual differences. Specific techniques that can be used in the problem-solving/decision-making process to take advantage of these differences are also identified. The integrated process is applicable to a variety of individual and group situations.

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Process

Problem solving is a process in which we perceive and resolve a gap between a present situation and a desired goal, with the path to the goal blocked by known or unknown obstacles. In general, the situation is one not previously encountered, or where at least a specific solution from past experiences is not known. In contrast, decision making is a selection process where one of two or more possible solutions is chosen to reach a desired goal. The steps in both problem solving and decision making are quite similar. In fact, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

Most models of problem solving and decision making include at least four phases (e.g. Bransford & Stein, 1984; Dewey, 1933; Polya, 1971): 1) an Input phase in which a problem is perceived and an attempt is made to understand the situation or problem; 2) a Processing phase in which alternatives are generated and evaluated and a solution is selected; 3) an Output phase which includes planning for and implementing the solution; and 4) a Review phase in which the solution is evaluated and modifications are made, if necessary. Most researchers describe the problem-solving/decision-making process as beginning with the perception of a gap and ending with the implementation and evaluation of a solution to fill that gap.

Each phase of the process includes specific steps to be completed before moving to the next phase. These steps will be discussed in greater detail later in this paper.

Consideration of Individual Differences

Although there are a variety of ways to consider individual differences relative to problem solving and decision making, this paper will focus on personality type and temperament as measured by the MBTI.

Personality Type and Problem Solving

Researchers have investigated the relationship of Jung’s theory of individuals’ preferences and their approach to problem solving and decision making (e.g. Lawrence, 1982, 1984; McCaulley, 1987; Myers & McCaulley, 1985). The following is a summary of their findings.

When solving problems, individuals preferring introversion will want to take time to think and clarify their ideas before they begin talking, while those preferring extraversion will want to talk through their ideas in order to clarify them. In addition, Is will more likely be concerned with their own understanding of important concepts and ideas, while Es will continually seek feedback from the environment about the viability of their ideas.

Sensing individuals will be more likely to pay attention to facts, details, and reality. They will also tend to select standard solutions that have worked in the past. Persons with intuition preferences, on the other hand, will more likely attend to the meaningfulness of the facts, the relationships among the facts, and the possibilities of future events that can be imagined from these facts. They will exhibit a tendency to develop new, original solutions rather than to use what has worked previously.

Individuals with a thinking preference will tend to use logic and analysis during problem solving. They are also likely to value objectivity and to be impersonal in drawing conclusions. They will want solutions to make sense in terms of the facts, models, and/or principles under consideration. By contrast, individuals with a feeling preference are more likely to consider values and feelings in the problem-solving process. They will tend to be subjective in their decision making and to consider how their decisions could affect other people.

The final dimension to be considered describes an individual’s preference for either judging (using T or F) or perceiving (using S or N). Js are more likely to prefer structure and organization and will want the problem-solving process to demonstrate closure. Ps are more likely to prefer flexibility and adaptability. They will be more concerned that the problem-solving process considers a variety of techniques and provides for unforeseen change.

As a demonstration of how personality type can affect problem solving, McCaulley (1987) describes the problem-solving characteristics of two of the 16 MBTI types, ISTJ and ENFP.

In problem solving, ISTJ will want a clear idea of the problem (I) and attack it by looking for the facts (S) and by relying on a logical, impersonal (T), step-by-step approach in reaching conclusions. In contrast, ENFP will throw out all sorts of possibilities (N), seeking feedback from the environment to clarify the problem (E). Brainstorming (NP) will be enjoyed. The human aspects of the problem (F) are likely to be emphasized over impersonal, technical issues (T). To the ISTJ, the ENFP approach is likely to seem irrational or scattered. To the ENFP, the ISTJ approach is likely to seem slow and unimaginative. (pp. 43-44)

Kiersey and Bates (1978) provide another view of Jung’s theory. These authors focus on four temperaments similar in many ways to those described in ancient times by Hippocrates and in the early 20th century by psychologists such as Adickes (1907), Kretschmer (1921/1925), and Spranger (1928). These temperaments can be useful in discussing individual differences related to problem solving and decision making since they are associated with fundamental differences in orientation to problem solving and goals to be addressed.

The first dimension considered in temperament is the one related to differences in the perceptual processes used in gathering information–the S-N dimension. Kiersey and Bates (1978) argue that S-N is the most fundamental dimension since all other dimensions depend on the type of information most preferred. The concrete-abstract dimension in Kolb’s (1984) theory of learning style supports this proposal.

For individuals with a sensing preference, the second dimension to be considered (J-P) relates to the utilization of data–should they be organized and structured or should additional data be gathered. For Ns, the second dimension (T-F) relates to the evaluation of data by logic and reason or by values and impact on people. Therefore, the four temperaments are SP, SJ, NT, and NF.

The SP temperament is oriented to reality in a playful and adaptable manner. The goal of the SP is action, and the SP’s time reference is the present. The SP wants to take some immediate action using an iterative approach to achieve the end result or goal. The SP’s definition of the problem is likely to change in the process of solving it. Individuals of this temperament are not likely bound by original perceptions and want the freedom to change their perceptions based on new information. Sometimes lack of a coherent plan of action diverts the SP from the original problem.

An individual of the SJ temperament is oriented to reality in an organized manner, strives to be socially useful, and performs traditional duties within a structured framework. SJs are detail conscious, are able to anticipate outcomes, and prefer evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. SJs often need help in categorizing details into meaningful patterns and generating creative, non-standard alternatives.

The NT temperament approaches problem solving scientifically and is future oriented. NTs are likely to be interested in the laws or principles governing a situation. The prescriptive problem-solving/decision-making process described by researchers is oriented to the NT temperament. NTs tend to overlook important facts and details and need help considering the impact of solutions on people.

The NF temperament seeks self-discovery, which appears to be a circular goal, and is oriented to the future in terms of human possibilities. When engaged in the problem-solving process, NFs may rely on internal alternatives often interpreted as not grounded in reality or logic. They are often concerned with the integrity of solutions and strive to enhance personal development. NFs need help attending to details and focusing on realistic, formulated solutions.

The validity of the problem-solving process will be seen from different perspectives by each temperament. SPs will value their own experiences; SJs will value tradition and authority; NTs will value logic and reason; NFs will value insight and inspiration. The challenge for using the problem-solving process described by experts is to utilize techniques and procedures that acknowledge individual differences and provide an opportunity for alternative perspectives to be considered.

It is not enough to describe a problem-solving process and to describe how individuals differ in their approach to or use of it. It is also necessary to identify specific techniques of attending to individual differences. Fortunately, a variety of problem-solving techniques have been identified to accommodate individual preferences. Some of these techniques are oriented more to NT and SJ individuals who tend to be more linear and serial, more structured, more rational and analytical, and more goal-oriented in their approach to problem solving. Other techniques are more suited to NF and SP individuals who demonstrate a preference for an approach that is more holistic and parallel, more emotional and intuitive, more creative, more visual, and more tactual/kinesthetic. It is important that techniques from both categories be selected and used in the problem-solving process. Duemler and Mayer (1988) found that when students used exclusively either reflection or inspiration during problem solving, they tended to be less successful than if they used a moderate amount of both processes. This section offers some examples of both types of techniques; the next section will demonstrate how to integrate them into the problem-solving process to accommodate individual differences.

The following techniques focus more on logic and critical thinking, especially within the context of applying the scientific approach:

A. Analysis–the identification of the components of a situation and consideration of the relationships among the parts (Bloom, Englehart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956);

B. Backwards planning–a goal selection process where mid-range and short-term conditions necessary to obtain the goal are identified (Case & Bereiter, 1984; Gagne, 1977; Skinner, 1954); this technique is related to the more general technique of means-ends analysis described by Newell and Simon (1972);

C. Categorizing/classifying–the process of identifying and selecting rules to group objects, events, ideas, people, etc. (Feuerstein, Rand, Hoffman, & Miller, 1980; Sternberg, 1988);

D. Challenging assumptions–the direct confrontation of ideas, opinions, or attitudes that have previously been taken for granted (Bransford & Stein, 1984; Brookfield, 1987);

E. Evaluating/judging–comparison to a standard and making a qualitative or quantitative judgment of value or worth (Bloom et al. 1956);

F. Inductive/deductive reasoning–the systematic and logical development of rules or concepts from specific instances or the identification of cases based on a general principle or proposition using the generalization and inference (e.g. Devine, 1981; Pelligrino, 1985; Sternberg, 1988);

G. Thinking aloud–the process of verbalizing about a problem and its solution while a partner listens in detail for errors in thinking or understanding (Whimby & Lochhead, 1982);

H. Network analysis–a systems approach to project planning and mangement where relationships among activities, events, resources, and timelines are developed and charted. Specific examples include Program Evaluation and Review Technique and Critical Path Method (Awani, 1983; Handy & Hussain, 1969);

I. Plus-Minus-Interesting (PMI)–considering the positive, negative, and interesting or thought-provoking aspects of an idea or alternative using a balance sheet grid where plus and minus refer to criteria identified in the second step of the problem-solving process (de Bono, 1976; Janis & Mann, 1977);

J. Task analysis–the consideration of skills and knowledge required to learn or perform a specific task (Gagne, 1977; Gardner, 1985).

The following problem-solving techniques focus more on creative, lateral, or divergent thinking (e.g. de Bono, 1983; Prince, 1970; Wonder & Donovan, 1984):

A. Brainstorming–attempting to spontaneously generate as many ideas on a subject as possible; ideas are not critiqued during the brainstorming process; participants are encouraged to form new ideas from ideas already stated (Brookfield, 1987; Osborn, 1963);

B. Imaging/visualization–producing mental pictures of the total problem or specific parts of the problem (Lazarus, 1978; McKim, 1980; Wonder & Donovan, 1984);

C. Incubation–putting aside the problem and doing something else to allow the mind to unconsciously consider the problem (Frederiksen, 1984; Osborn, 1963);

D. Outcome psychodrama–enacting a scenario of alternatives or solutions through role playing (Janis & Mann, 1977);

E. Outrageous provocation–making a statement that is known to be absolutely incorrect (e.g. the brain is made of charcoal) and then considering it; used as a bridge to a new idea (Beinstock, 1984); also called "insideouts" by Wonder and Donovan (1984);

F. Overload–considering a large number of facts and details until the logic part of the brain becomes overwhelmed and begins looking for patterns (Wonder & Donovan, 1984); can also be generated by immersion in aesthetic experiences (Brookfield, 1987), sensitivity training (Lakin, 1972), or similar experiences;

G. Random word technique–selecting a word randomly from the dictionary and juxtaposing it with problem statement, then brainstorming about possible relationships (Beinstock, 1984);

H. Relaxation–systematically relaxing all muscles while repeating a personally meaningful focus word or phrase (Benson, 1987); a specific example of the more general technique called "suspenders" by Wonder and Donovan (1984);

I. Synthesizing–combining parts or elements into a new and original pattern Bloom et al. 1956; Sternberg, 1988);

J. Taking another’s perspective–deliberately taking another person’s point of view (de Bono, 1976; referred to as "be someone else" by Wonder and Donovan (1984);

K. Values clarification–using techniques such as role-playing, simulations, self-analysis exercises, and structured controversy to gain a greater understanding of attitudes and beliefs that individuals hold important (Fraenkel, 1977; Johnson & Johnson, 1988; Kirschenbaum, 1977).

Integrating Techniques into the Problem-Solving Process

The problem-solving techniques discussed above are most powerful when combined to activate both the logical/rational and intuitive/creative parts of the brain (Wonder & Donovan, 1984). The following narrative will provide an example of how these techniques can be used at specific points in the problem-solving process to address important individual differences. The techniques will be presented within the context of a group problem-solving situation but are equally applicable to an individual situation. The terms in parentheses refer to personality dimensions to which the technique would appeal.

The Input Phase

The goal of the Input phase is to gain a clearer understanding of the problem or situation. The first step is to identify the problem(s) and state it(them) clearly and concisely. Identifying the problem means describing as precisely as possible the gap between one’s perception of present circumstances and what one would like to happen. Problem identification is vital to communicate to one’s self and others the focus of the problem-solving/decision-making process. Arnold (1978) identified four types of gaps: 1) something is wrong and needs to be corrected; 2) something is threatening and needs to be prevented; 3) something is inviting and needs to be accepted; and 4) something is missing and needs to be provided. Tunnel vision (stating the problem too narrowly) represents the major difficulty in problem identification as it leads to artificially restricting the search for alternatives.

Brainstorming is an excellent technique to begin the problem-solving process. Individually, participants quickly write possible solutions (introversion, perception), share these alternatives as a group in a non-judgmental fashion, and continue to brainstorm (extraversion, perception). Participants then classify, categorize, and prioritize problems, forming a hierarchy of the most important to the least important (intuition, thinking).

The second step of the Input phase is to state the criteria that will be used to evaluate possible alternatives to the problem as well as the effectiveness of selected solutions. During this step it is important to state any identified boundaries of acceptable alternatives, important values or feelings to be considered, or results that should be avoided. In addition, criteria should be categorized as either essential for a successful solution or merely desired.

Brainstorming can also be used during this second step. Participants quickly write possible criteria for use in evaluating alternatives (introversion, perception). These factors generally fall into the following categories: 1) important personal values, attitudes, and feelings to be considered (sensing, feeling); 2) important values, attitudes, and feelings to be considered in context of the work group, organization, community, society, etc. (extraversion, intuition, feeling); 3) practical factors that relate to how an alternative should work (sensing, thinking); and 4) factors that logically flow from the statement of the problem, relevant facts, or how the solution should fit into the larger context (intuition, thinking). Values clarification techniques can be very useful in generating criteria related to values, feelings, and attitudes. Role-playing and simulations are especially appreciated by SPs and SJs, who generally take a more practical approach to problem solving. Self-analysis exercises and structured controversy are more likely to appeal to NFs and NTs, who focus on principles and abstractions. In addition, the use of both deductive and inductive reasoning can be important in generating criteria. For example, logically generating criteria from the problem statement would use deductive reasoning, whereas combining several different values or feelings to form criteria would use inductive reasoning.

After criteria are generated they are then shared in a non-judgmental manner using procedures suggested in values clarification strategies (extraversion, perception). Important criteria are placed into different categories, and a preliminary selection is made. Selected criteria are then evaluated in terms of their reasonableness given the problem statement (intuition, thinking, judging). Of course, these criteria can, and probably will, be modified based on important facts identified in the next step.

The third step is to gather information or facts relevant to solving the problem or making a decision. This step is critical for understanding the initial conditions and for further clarification of the perceived gap. Most researchers believe that the quality of facts is more important than the quantity. In fact, Beinstock (1984) noted that collecting too much information can actually confuse the situation rather than clarify it.

The brainstorming technique could again be used in this step. As done previously, participants quickly write those facts they believe to be important (introversion, sensing) and then share them in a non-judgmental fashion (extraversion, sensing). These facts are classified and categorized, and relationships and meaningfulness are stablished (intuition, thinking). The techniques of imaging and overload can be used to establish patterns and relationships among the facts. The facts are analyzed in terms of the problem statement and criteria, and non-pertinent facts are eliminated (thinking, judging). The remaining facts and associated patterns are then prioritized and additional facts collected as necessary (thinking, perceiving).

The Processing Phase

In the Processing phase the task is to develop, evaluate, and select alternatives and solutions that can solve the problem. The first step in this phase is to develop alternatives or possible solutions. Most researchers focus on the need to create alternatives over the entire range of acceptable options as identified in the previous phase (Schnelle, 1967). This generation should be free, open, and unconcerned about feasibility. Enough time should be spent on this activity to ensure that non-standard and creative alternatives are generated.

Again, brainstorming is a technique that can be used first. Participants quickly write alternatives using the rules of brainstorming (introversion, perception), then share the results in a non-judgmental fashion and develop additional alternatives (extraversion, perception). A number of the techniques mentioned above such as challenging assumptions, imaging, outcome psychodrama, outrageous provocation, the random word technique, and taking another’s perspective can be used at this point to generate more creative alternatives. Those alternatives obviously unworthy of further consideration are eliminated (intuition, judging). It is possible to categorize or classify alternatives and consider them as a group, but care should be taken not to make the categories too complex or unwieldy. If the person or group is dissatisfied with the quantity or quality of the alternatives under consideration, a brief use of the progressive relaxation technique may be beneficial as well as the application of another, previously unused, creative technique. If dissatisfaction still remains, putting aside the problem (incubation) may be helpful.

The next step is to evaluate the generated alternatives vis-a-vis the stated criteria. Advantages, disadvantages, and interesting aspects for each alternative (using the PMI technique) are written individually (introversion, sensing, judging), then shared and discussed as a group (extroversion, sensing, judging). Most researchers advocate written evaluation, if only in the form of personal notes. After discarding alternatives that are clearly outside the bounds of the previously stated criteria, both advantages and disadvantages should be considered in more detail. An analysis of relationships among alternatives should be completed (i.e. is an advantage of one a disadvantage for another) and consideration should be given to the relative importance of advantages and disadvantages. Only those alternatives the majority considers relevant and correct are considered further.

The third step of the processing phase is to develop a solution that will successfully solve the problem. For relatively simple problems, one alternative may be obviously superior. However, in complex situations several alternatives may likely be combined to form a more effective solution (simply selecting one alternative will appeal to sensing, judging; combining one or more alternatives to make a new alternative will appeal to intuition, perceiving). A major advantage of this process is that if previous steps have been done well then choosing a solution is less complicated (Simon, 1969).

Before leaving this phase it is important to diagnose possible problems with the solution and implications of these problems (what could go wrong–sensing, judging; implications–intuition, perceiving). When developing a solution it is important to consider the worst that can happen if the solution is implemented. In addition, the solution should be evaluated in terms of overall "feelings." That is, does the alternative match important values as previously stated (feeling).

The Output Phase

During the Output phase a plan is developed and the solution actually implemented. The plan must be sufficiently detailed to allow for successful implementation, and methods of evaluation must be considered and developed. When developing a plan, the major phases of implementation are first considered (intuition), and then steps necessary for each phase are generated. It is often helpful to construct a timeline and make a diagram of the most important steps in the implementation using a technique such as network analysis (sensing, judging). Backwards planning and task analysis are also useful techniques at this point. The plan is then implemented as carefully and as completely as possible, following the steps as they have been developed and making minor modifications as appropriate (sensing, judging).

The Review Phase

The next step, evaluating implementation of the solution, should be an ongoing process. Some determination as to completeness of implementation needs to be considered prior to evaluating effectiveness. This step is often omitted and is one reason why the problem-solving/decision-making process sometimes fails: the solution that has been selected is simply not implemented effectively. However, if the solution is not implemented then evaluation of effectiveness is not likely to be valid.

The second step of this phase is evaluating the effectiveness of the solution. It is particularly important to evaluate outcomes in light of the problem statement generated at the beginning of the process. Affective, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes should be considered, especially if they have been identified as important criteria. The solution should be judged as to its efficiency (thinking, judging), its impact on the people involved (feeling, judging), and the extent to which it is valued by the participants (feeling, judging).

The final step in the process is modifying the solution in ways suggested by the evaluation process. Evaluation of the solution implementation and outcomes generally presents additional problems to be considered and addressed. Issues identified in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness of implementation should be addressed.

Table 1 lists important aspects of personality when considering attention to individual differences during problem solving and decision making. Each aspect of personality has a different orientation to problem solving, different criteria for judging the effectiveness of the process and selected alternatives, as well as different preferred techniques and strengths. These differences must be considered by both individuals and groups if effective solutions are to be generated and implemented.

Table 1. Aspects of personality important for problem solving and decision making

Taking another’s perspective

Develop complex solutions

If the majority of the group is composed of a single temperament, the basic process can be modified to take advantage of the dominant attitudes. For example, if the majority of the group is composed of SPs, it is often useful to shorten the information collection and alternatives evaluation steps and move relatively quickly to an iterative process of identifying an appropriate solution through action. This identification might be done using psychodrama, building simple models or simulations, and trying out different alternatives. The entire group might brainstorm about the statement of the problem, pertinent facts, and criteria then form a subcommittee to conduct a more thorough analysis. Results could then be submitted to the whole group for consideration, and alternatives could be generated and evaluated. The subcommittee could then take the alternatives, develop a solution, and work out implementation details.

If the group contains a majority of SJs, care should be taken to proceed in a step-by- step, orderly manner, with ample time for consideration of all details at each step. The group leader should consistently remind participants of where they are in the overall process since SJs sometimes focus too intensely on details and lose sight of the broader goal. During the alternatives generation phase, the group leader must be prepared to use any or all techniques for generating creative options since SJs are likely to select a traditional, familiar solution rather than formulate something new. Most importantly, the process must result in a careful, detailed plan of action that participants can follow to solve the problem. Following a step-by-step procedure is the strength of the SJs, and a properly developed solution is likely to be accurately implemented.

If the group is composed mainly of NTs, the group leader should be prepared to spend as much time as possible developing a model of the problem and its related elements. It is critical that group members have a common representation of the problem as this representation will guide the development and selection of alternatives. Careful consideration must be given to collection and discussion of all relevant details and facts as NTs are likely to consider the meaningfulness of the facts and details and often overlook those that conflict with their representations. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, care must be given to carefully analyze any alternative in terms of its impact on people. Consideration of others’ perspectives in terms of values and feelings is often difficult for NTs since they tend to view the world in such a logical, analytical manner.

When the group is composed mainly of NFs, it will naturally focus on selecting alternatives that maximize possibilities in people. The same careful attention to facts and details necessary for NTs is also appropriate for NFs since NFs also focus on the significance of facts and details within their representation of the problem. Focusing on facts and details is also beneficial since it more likely results in solutions that can be realistically implemented. NFs are the prototype idealists and sometimes want to select theoretically possible alternatives that are difficult to implement given current circumstances. A process for monitoring implementation of the solution is also important since NFs sometimes do not pay attention to the details of managing the change process.

Table 2 presents aspects of temperament important for problem solving and decision making. Each temperament has distinct elements and preferred processes and techniques as well as different needs or weaknesses. If consideration is given these differences, it increases the likelihood of individual satisfaction with the process and implementation of selected alternatives. Implemented solutions will more likely be effective since they have been considered from all perspectives.

Summary and Conclusions

In general, there is a need to develop and use a problem-solving/decision-making process that is both scientific and considerate of individual differences and viewpoints. While the scientific process has provided a method used successfully in a wide variety of situations, researchers have described individual differences that can influence perspectives and goals related to problem solving. These differences can be used to identify appropriate problem-solving techniques used in each step of the problem-solving process.

The process described in this paper allows individuals to use a standard method in a variety of situations and to adapt it to meet personal preferences. The same process can be used in group situations to satisfy the unique perspectives of individual members. Decisions made in this manner are more likely to be effective since individuals can consciously attend to both personal strengths and weaknesses, while groups are more likely to select solutions that will both solve the problem and be acceptable to individual group members.

Table 2. Aspects of temperament important for problem solving and decision making

Attending to facts and details

Developing realistic alternatives

Carefully monitor implementation

The model and the outlined techniques, appeal to individuals differently. Both extraverts and introverts appreciate the process because it constantly allows them to utilize a strength. Sensing types appreciate the organization of information into manageable parts, and intuitives like having a model and a demonstration of the relationships among parts. Intuitives also appreciate having assistance in generating and analyzing specifics. Feeling types appreciate the built-in steps for considering values and affect, but often have the most difficulty with the process. SFs sometimes become confused or overwhelmed with the amount of informtion generated and simply want to focus on what they like or do not like, while NFs think it is silly to be so analytical when the correct answer is obvious and can be ascertained more easily. Perceiving types like the process because it allows for systematic generation and consideration of a variety of alternatives, although strong perceiving types sometimes dislike the structure imposed on the problem-solving process. Judging types like the organization and structure of the process, although strong judging types sometimes become impatient with the length of the process. Care must be taken to provide these individuals with sufficient training so that their personal experiences validate the process.

The benefits of the process described in this paper can be considered in three major categories: general, organizational, and individual.

General. One of the primary benefits of using this process is that it is an effective way of managing change. Because rapid and unpredictable change is the norm today, it is important that sufficient resources be available to manage it. In addition, the process can be used by individuals and organizations to solve a wide variety of problems. Since there is continuous diversity in the types of problems to be solved, it is important to have a generalizable, but flexible, process to resolve them. If it were necessary to have a unique problem-solving technique for every problem, it would be easy to be quickly overwhelmed before even getting started. While it may be impossible to have a single process that is applicable to all problems or decisions by all individuals, it is important to have a generalizable, though flexible, process that individuals believe fits with their unique styles and that can be used to capitalize on strengths and support weaknesses.

A second general advantage is that the process provides for the generation of both objective and subjective criteria used to select and evaluate alternatives. That is, reason and logic are balanced by creativity and divergence throughout the process. Duemler and Mayer (1988) demonstrated that when individuals used both types of techniques they were more successful in their problem solving. This provides the individual and/or group with increased confidence that a correct decision is being made even if reaching that decision requires a little extra time. A related benefit is that use of the process allows decision maker(s)/problem solver(s) to better sell the selected solutions to superiors and/or subordinates since the important individual differences likely to be valued by these individuals have already been considered. Additionally, the process has a built-in step to consider what could go wrong if particular solutions are selected. However, this step is taken only after creative and original alternatives have been considered and does not limit alternatives to those already proven successful.

Work group or organization. One of the primary benefits of using this process in a work group or organization is that it allows individuals within the group to understand the problem thoroughly before considering alternatives. Too often, problem-solving discussions focus on the debate of preselected alternatives. At the outset of the discussion (or perhaps even before), participants select positions as to which alternative is better. The result is a separation into camps of winners and losers. Use of this process takes energy normally spent on arguing for a specific solution and rechannels that energy into a collective search for an acceptable solution.

A related benefit is that a thorough discussion prior to considering alternatives can actually make problem solving less complicated and successful results more likely to be achieved. Quite often group discussion is not about solutions, but about assumptions of facts, criteria, and important values that remain unstated throughout the deliberation. By clearly stating these before alternatives/solutions are discussed, the actual selection of alternatives is often easier. Frequently a lack of careful analysis by groups attempting to solve a problem leads to selecting a solution on some criteria other than "does it solve the problem." Sometimes a situation of "group think" occurs where one alternative is presented, and everyone simply agrees that it is best without critical analysis. This can lead the organization to make decisions based on power relationships (the boss likes this one), on affiliations (George is my friend, so I’ll support him), or on some basis other than achievement of goals.

Finally, use of a problem-solving process enhances the development of unity within the work group or organization. If everyone is using the same process of problem solving, then unity or consensus is much easier to achieve. Unified action generally produces better results than nonunified action (Kolstoe, 1985). If the selected solution is incorrect, then problems can be identified quickly and corrections can be made. On the other hand, if all participants are not working toward a common goal or if some members are actually trying to work against group goals, then energy that should be focused on solving the problem is dissipated; the proper solution may not be identified for some time, if at all.

Individual. One of the primary benefits to individuals in using this process is that the strengths and weaknesses of the individual can be identified and used or compensated for when making a decision. Everyone has strong and weak points that result from preferences in how a problem is viewed or considered. Careful selection and application of techniques reviewed in this paper (or similar techniques) increase the likelihood that individuals will enhance their strengths and attend to issues they would otherwise omit or attend to less well.

When participating in the problem-solving process in a group, two additional advantages occur. First, individuals can learn to value alternative viewpoints or preferences by considering differences in others as strengths rather than as "wrong" or of less value. It is only natural that we consider our own approaches or preferences as more correct than other approaches. However, as is evident by the above discussion of the steps in problem solving, all preferences and a variety of techniques must be used if the best solutions are to be developed and implemented. In this era of rapid change, it is vital that we consider all preferences, whether described in personality or otherwise, as being equally appropriate and valuable.

Additionally, the development of an individual’s decision-making powers can be enhanced by advancing through the process with others in a group situation. Whimby and Lochhead (1982) have demonstrated that verbalizing one’s thinking process while someone else listens and critiques that process (the think-aloud technique) is one of the most valuable ways to improve problem solving and decision making. When individuals are active and participate in a group-based, problem-solving process, it can lead to the development of the skills required to make better independent decisions.

Importance of a Knowledge Base and Critical Thinking Skills

It is generally accepted that at least three elements are required for problem solving and decision making: a knowledge base, an adequate level of thinking and communication skills, and an organized approach or strategy to solve problems (Woods, 1987). While this paper has outlined the third element, it is important to realize that inadequate development of the other two areas will likely result in less than adequate problem-solving performance. A knowledge base is unique to every problem and no general statements are likely to be applicable other than the individual or group must comprehend the facts, concepts, and principles applicable to the specific situation and be able to apply them. On the other hand, many researchers have studied the importance of thinking and communication skills as the foundation for problem solving and decision making and have described numerous attempts to improve them (e.g. Chipman, Segal & Glaser, 1985; Feuerstein, 1979; Nickerson et al. 1985). Without development of these skills, successful execution of the process discussed in this paper becomes more difficult.

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Dept. of Psychology, Counseling, & Guidance
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA 31698-0001

Office: (912) 333-5613
FAX: (912) 244-9937

Problem Solving / Pre-Engineering

3-D Visualization Practice with Cube Puzzles
Solving Piet Hein’s cube puzzles gives students great experience with the 3-D visualization skills essential to success with drafting, CAD and engineering graphics. Mini project, only $2.95.

Automotive Aerodynamics
First students study aerodynamics and drag coefficient to find out how wind tunnels help engineers build efficient cars. Then they build their own cars and a gravity track raceway to test their designs.

Bat Wing Flyer: A Glider Challenge
By constructing model gliders from foam egg cartons, students are introduced to the parts of an airplane and learn how to balance for maximum flight performance.

Biotechnology: Ergonomics
The art of designing products to better fit the people who use them is examined in this project by having students make a mannequin, study its range of motion, and design a chair that best conforms to the mannequin’s body.

Biotechnology: Waste Management
Students learn how toxic waste makes its way into water system s, what radioactive elements such as plutonium, cesium and uranium are made up of, and how these radioactive materials can be measured at a waste site. Mini project, only $2.95.

Studying and making boomerangs teaches students about four forces that affect an airplane’s flight: thrust, gravity, drag and lift. Flying the boomerangs is motivating for students and teachers alike!

Building a Better Mousetrap Offers Cross-Curricular Connections
Technology students create and test innovative designs that allow a mouse to survive the trapping process. Cross-curricular connections include social studies, English, math, science, art, and ecology. The activity appeared in the October 2012 issue of Tech Directions and has been reformatted. Extras include a grading rubric and design handouts. Only $2.95 .

Building a Putt-Putt Golf Obstacle
Enjoyable, low-cost activity engages middle school students. Incorporates design, teamwork, engineering, and problem solving, with an emphasis on power transmission.

Cardboard Boat Challenge
Students research, design, construct, and race cardboard boats, gaining substantial math, science, communication, and engineering experience. Includes key definitions, detailed student instructions, 13 pages of student work sheets, plus an evaluation sheet.

Cardboard Chair Design
A five-day unit for middle schoolers, this project teaches kids how to apply different modeling techniques, use several modeling materials, apply modeling as a part of the design process, work in small groups and other skills in technology and critical thinking.

Cardboard Wind Tunnel
Middle schoolers on a budget can make their own wind tunnel to test the aerodynamic qualities of CO2 racers. Includes design brief and assembly instructions, testing procedures, short-answer quiz and list of references.

Cereal Box Design
This interdisciplinary activity introduces students to graphic design; basic drawing; sketching and rendering; measuring area, volume and weight; oral and written technical communication; applied problem solving; marketing; consumer research; environmental education; recycling; and considerations of form, function, and aesthetics.

Cheapo Aerospace Technology
Students learn about simple orbital mechanics, design and construct a model rocket, balance it prior to flight, measure its altitude with a homemade sextant and recover it after launch.

Collapsible Structures
Students learn the principles of how collapsible structures are designed and built. The project culminates with students building a model module of the International Space Station that will fit inside the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle.

Collapsible Wooden Table Project Teaches Design and Engineering
Challenge students to design a collapsible table. Project adapts woodworking technology to teach design and engineering. It appeared in the February 2012 issue of Tech Directions and has been reformatted to provide a student handout listing the Design Challenge. It does not include specific design plans. Only $2.95.

Conduct Load Test Experiments Using Simple Materials
Experimenting with simple paperboard, students learn how engineers conduct load tests. They start with a simple strip, add a strut support system to improve their results, and finally design their own support. Worksheets for recording and charting results included.

Construction Acoustics: Acoustical Insulator
Using inexpensive materials, student teams construct boxes and insulate them for sound, then test the results of their efforts.

Cookin’ with Sun—Design and Build Solar Cookers
Hot dogs and marshmallows anyone? Bring together math, science and technology in an activity that teaches students about designing products that address human needs, along with issues related to health and the environment.

Cost-Effective Tower Building and Testing
Students learn structural engineering by building tower sides, then testing them with a teacher-made testing device—“Big Buster.” Note: This project appeared in the May 2008 issue of Tech Directions. It has been reformatted for easy classroom use.

Crash Testing Challenge Aims to Save Egg/Driver
In this twist on the classic egg-drop activity, students modify a small crash test vehicle to protect its raw egg occupant. Project appeared in the November 2011 issue of Tech Directions. It has been reformatted for easy classroom use. Mini project, only $2.95.

Crash Testing in the Lab
Students find crash testing CO2 cars really exciting–and in the course of the activity they learn a lot about the nature of force, mass, energy absorption, crumple zones, passenger containment and automotive safety.

Creating a Coin Sorter
With simple materials (cloth, paper plates, plastic cups, tape, thread, etc.), students design and construct a device to sort pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Mini project, only $2.95.

Students use problem-solving steps to go from a mental idea to an actual prototype while learning to work as part of a team. Six creativity-fostering activities, including two peg-board games made from readily-available materials, are included.

Crumple Zones
Teach your students how energy is dissipated by crash barriers and product packaging in ways that keep people safe and products unbroken. In this project, students build a freeway barrier and a vehicle to test the barrier.

Crush-Worthiness—An Introduction to Materials Testing
Using a teacher-made testing device, students experiment with various materials to find how well they stand up under presssure. This project appeared in the February 2011 issue of Tech Directions. It has been reformatted for easy classroom use with added student data recording sheets.

Scytale transposition ciphers, substitution ciphers, picture alphabets, grill ciphers and one-time systems are all covered. Includes two encryption activities, one of which requires middle schoolers to build and use an encryption wheel. Mini project, only $2.95.

Design and Build a Kayak from PVC Pipe and Shrink-Wrap
A real-world “sink or swim” challenge for students in grades 9–12. Following the IDEAL problem-solving process, students design and construct a prototype kayak using only PVC piping, zip ties, and shrink-wrap. Then students take their kayaks for a test run in the school pool. This project appeared in the April 2011 issue of Tech Directions. It has been reformatted for easy classroom use and also includes an evaluation form and a list of standards met.

Design and Build Gumball Machines
Students get great experience with research and design, problem solving, use of jigs and fixtures, and the details of the mass production process.

Designer Concrete
Background on composite materials and their use in construction, with an activity that has students experiment with different formulas for concrete, then strength test the results.

Designing a Self-Sustaining Community
Students assume the role of consultant for a small community that wishes to be self-sustaining in terms of electrical service. The activity appeared in the November 2012 issue of Tech Directions and has been reformatted. Student handouts and worksheets are now included. Only $2.95.

Egg Bungee Jump!
P re-engineering activity gives students experience with the value of risk, failure and serendipity; the role of calculation; and Newton’s laws of motion. Lots of fun for the whole class!

Engineering Design: Testing Paper Clip Strength
This project discusses the roles of failure, conflict and serendipity, as well as production concerns involved in engineering design, and includes an engaging, low-cost fatigue-testing activity. Mini project, only $2.95.

Factory Layout and Planning
Discusses the different advantages of process plants and product plants, and eight essential qualities of safe and maximally efficient factories. Middle schoolers then design their own toy factory layout. Project includes machine template, room patterns and accessories. Mini project, only $2.95.

Fire as Technology
Challenge your students to be survivors in a five-day classroom activity! Students research various materials and methods to produce fire without the use of matches or other modern means, then must create “fire” to keep their “society” alive. Mini project, only $2.95.

Forensics 101—Applying Physics to Solve Crimes
Capitalize on CSI mania! Students apply math and science knowledge to solve a class "murder case" that shows how forensic experts use physics principles.

General Challenges
From the best of the “More than Fun” archives! Nineteen puzzlers to develop your students’ logical-thinking skills. Includes two sheets of problems and two sheets of solutions. Perfect one-day project for you or a sub!

General Challenges 2
Nineteen more brainteasers and thought-provoking problems from the best of the "More Than Fun" archives — guaranteed to test your students’ problem-solving skills! Great for those students who finish activities before the rest of the class or when lesson plans run short.

GPS Projects for the Technology Class
One of the hottest new crazes, geocaching–a high-tech treasure hunt–uses GPS technology. Used for a number of years in navigation and location finding, GPS has many different applications. Introduce it to your students with these engaging projects.

Hovercraft Curriculum
Want a great capstone activity for your Tech Ed class? We’ve got you covered! Hovercraft Curriculum brings together the concepts of force, work, and rate, and shows how they apply to mechanical, fluid, electrical, and thermal systems. This 39-page comprehensive curriculum describes how a tech ed teacher challenged his students to build an actual working hovercraft and how they went on to compete in a national hovercraft race event! Project includes a teacher intro, student handouts on the science and physics involved in hovercraft design, homework sheets, lab activities, and vocabulary lists. (Hovercraft plans not included.)

Hovercraft Design and Testing
Activity uses very inexpensive materials—foam board, a pop-up bottle cap, and a balloon—to teach design and testing procedures. Includes background information on engineering processes and detailed instructions. This project appeared in the August 2011 issue of Tech Directions. It has been reformatted for easy classroom use and also includes a grading rubric, drawings, and additional photos.

Hydrodynamics and Boat Hull Design
A week-long, hands-on project on mechanics and fluids for middle schoolers. Includes project notes for teachers, a unit calendar, evaluation rubric, bill of materials, quiz and quiz key—17 pages in all!

Industrial Design: Packaging Design
Students develop a solution to a packaging design problem by first creating a design portfolio of sketches, then a technical drawing of the best solution, and finally the package itself using simple, inexpensive materials.

Industrial Models: A Futuristic Product
With a variety of low-cost materials (clay, cardboard, pieces of wood, components from discarded toys and devices), students develop an idea for a product, then construct a model of the product.

Katapultos: Teaching Basic Statistics with Ballistics
Heads up! This technology project increases math, science and technology correlations within the classroom while giving students a fun way to collect and apply measurement data.

Landscape Architecture: Design and Problem Solving
Series of projects introduce students to a variety of issues in landscape architecture. Projects include designing backyard retreats, planning a neighborhood community, and solving community design problems.

Four separate activities make up this laser project. Students design and arrange the course of a laser, then learn how to draw and measure angles using protractors. Next they draw shapes and check their accuracy using a laser, and finally try their hand at laser surveying. Mini project, only $2.95.

Launch Pad Design
Student teams design and construct a device that will launch a Ping Pong ball into a large cup. Features extensive problem-solving, physics, and mathematics content.

Manufacturing: Criteria Ranking
After learning the principles of manufacturing design as determined by such criteria as product safety, reliability, durability, comfort, styling, and cost, students build a cereal box marble maze.

An amazing extension into language arts and writing, this activity—aimed at meeting students’ basic literacy goals—shows how to incorporate language arts into your classroom while introducing students to the principles of technology.

Materials Science
Middle schoolers learn about the basic types of materials and their properties, how to measure and safely use basic tools, and how to design and construct a prototype and final project using these materials.

Materials Testing and Material Strength—‘Sweet’ Activity Teaches the Basics
Fun project uses Tootsie Rolls to teach the key concepts of materials testing and material strength.The activity appeared in the April 2014 issue of Tech Directions. It has been reformatted as an independent student project with ready-to-copy student instructions. It does not contain any additional information. Only $2.95!

Mini Solar Race Car
Here’s a miniature solar-powered electric car that students can construct, plus background on how transmissions work and advice on sources of information on solar cars.

‘Nerf’ Football Project Scores Points with Students
Students learn about chemistry, problem solving, and the importance of accurate measurement and precision timing while making flexible polyurethane footballs. The activity appeared in the November 2013 issue of Tech Directions and has been reformatted for easy classroom use. It contains additional photos.

A New Twist to Bridge and Tower Building
Picking up where “Newspaper Structures” leaves off (see next item), this middle school project teaches principles of mathematics as they relate to structural stability and the building of model structures. Includes 8 pages of student handouts.

Newspaper Structures
Challenge—build a geodesic dome large enough for a student to sit inside. Capture students’ interest in this fascinating project that uses only newspaper, scissors, masking tape, and dowel rods. Students will have fun and learn about physics topics, such as strength-to-weight ratios, Euler’s Law of regular polyhedra, and much more.

Newton’s Laws of Motion Challenge
Activity challenges students to design and build a simple energy-transferring machine that helps them understand Newton’s Laws of Motion.

Pinball Machine Project
Find out who’s the pinball wizard in your classroom! This project challenges students to design and construct their own pinball machine using their knowledge of simple machines, such as gears, pulleys, inclined planes, levers, and wheels. Students also learn various engineering concepts while honing their problem-solving skills. Perfect for Introduction to Technology classes. Project includes a design brief, materials and equipment lists, a grading rubric, guidelines for a written project summary, and a list of standards addressed.

Planned Community
You don’t have to look very far to find a planned community nowadays, they’re all around us. In this activity, students individually construct one piece of property, following strict covenants, that together will make up one large planned community. Mini project, only $2.95.

Power: Magnetic Levitation
Introduce your middle schoolers to the principles of magnetic levitation and build a Maglev train! Includes test questions, directions for assembling a Maglev train and Maglev train evaluation questions. Mini project, only $2.95.

Problem Solving Discovery Days
These projects build students’ problem-solving skills, developing their use of creative logic, conflict resolution, organization and sound judgment in decision making. Perfect for middle schoolers. Includes 15 pages of handouts for six complete projects.

Problem Solving with Commercial Illustrations
Use design of signs and packaging to teach students valuable problem-solving skills.

Project Gizmo
Students learn the design process used in industry and use CAD to create appropriate packaging for products of varying shapes.

Project X Air Cannon
A student simulation of NASA’s historic Project X-15 high speed and altitude program. Challenge your middle schoolers to design, construct and test models of rockets and aircraft made from simple materials while learning about aerodynamics, physics and mathematics.

Question Dice
The design process is not a crap shoot. A big part of solving problems is asking the right questions. This project describes how to make a set of wooden dice that ask students the how, when, where, why and more about designing manufacturing products and processes.

Rubrics for Drafting and Engineering Classes
Wouldn’t it be great if students knew beforehand the specific criteria on which their work will be graded? Here are rubrics for drafting and engineering that students can use to better evaluate their own performance, along with tips on how to use them.

Soils Engineering and Its Impact on Construction
Students gather and test a variety of types and mixes of soil to learn how builders and engineers are influenced by local soil considerations when they design and construct buildings. Mini project, only $2.95.

Structures and Bridges
After learning about the forces of tension, compression and shear, students build a simple beam-and-truss bridge to test for its resistance against these forces. Mini project, only $2.95.

Submarines: Building a Water Elevator
With a syringe, plastic hose and container for water, students build a small-scale elevator system in which they can submerge and raise a small capsule. Mini project, only $2.95.

Background on the physics involved in keeping heavy ships afloat, plus activities for building four types of small-scale boats. Mini project, only $2.95.

Teach Deflection Concepts with Hacksaw Blades and Rubber Bands
Students conduct a variety of deflection experiments with simple, inexpensive materials. The activity appeared in the February 2013 issue of Tech Directions and has been reformatted. Student instructions and worksheets are now included.

Tensional Integrity
Tensional integrity, or tensegrity, is covered with explanations of torque, stress, and Hooke’s Law. Once students understand the principles, they can complete three activities building structures based on what they have learned.

Testing How Structure and Shape Affect Strength
Using only paper, tape and glue, students construct several structures and shapes to examine how different construction techniques affect an object’s strength. Then, using a teacher-built “smasher,” the objects are put to the test.

Toothpick Experiment: Investigating Construction Strength
Students experiment to determine the strength of various kinds of joints, then design and test the strength of bridges made from toothpicks.

Towers: A Smashing Activity
Students explore mathematical and technological problem solving and apply concepts of measurement, geometric modeling, geometric stability and perimeter in designing, building and testing (kaboom!) inexpensive wooden towers.

Twenty-Second Timer
Using simple materials (paper cups, rubber bands, paper clips, plastic straws, etc.) students construct a timing device and learn the process of problem solving. From Technology Projects for the Classroom, in ready-to-use format. Mini project, only $2.95.

Up Periscope
Students learn about buoyancy, propulsion, and control systems in the course of designing, constructing, and testing a submarine that uses PVC pipe and a basic dc switching circuit. High school level.

Vacuum Cannon: A Demonstration of the Power of Atmospheric Pressure
A teacher-made and operated shop-vac-based “cannon” is used to demonstrate the principles of propulsion, then students experiment with design of their own projectiles, which the teacher can test.

Water Pressure Basics
Students experiment with water pressure and flow using two simple, easy-to-make water tank designs. This project appeared in the January 2011 issue of Tech Directions. It has been reformatted for easy classroom use with added student data recording sheets. Mini project, only $2.95 .

Wind Power & Wind Turbines
In this project for middle schoolers, students learn about torque, build and test their own wind turbines, learn to calculate kilowatts per hour and measure the power of their wind turbines.

Wright Wings: An Introduction to Aero-Modeling Basics
Middle school students learn how to identify and model basic aircraft by learning its characteristics. They are then challenged to produce a model glider/airplane, using research information to solve an instructor-created design problem and such simple and cheap materials as foam, paper and wood.