Complex Problem Solving

Complex Problem Solving

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: It is those who know little and not those who know much who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.      — Charles Darwin

In the book, Academically Adrift, by Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum, 2011, the authors discuss how poorly students do in four areas that they consider among  the main goals of a college education.

1. Analytic Reasoning (See  Analysis )
2. Effective Writing     ( See Evidence and Examples  )
3. Critical Thinking    (see Critical Thinking )
4. Complex Problem Solving

Tests showed very little change in students’ abilities in these areas over several years.

It is interesting to me that many colleges do not actually teach these skills. Many schools teach writing and some teach a class in critical thinking. But if there are classes in Analytic Reasoning or Complex Problem Solving, I’m not aware of them. Please read this page first. Then, if your school teaches anything like this, please let me know. I don’t care about the name of the class, just what is taught, what department it is in,  and if all students are required to take this class.

I  think the tests and the authors of the book left out many other important goals of college. Most surprising was that they didn’t even test the growth in knowledge, especially in student’s major field of study. I think students would have shown much greater progress in knowledge of their subject.

What is meant by Complex Problem Solving

The tests used to measure these skills was the CLA or Collegiate Learning Assessment. On their Internet site, I found this information as a sample of the kind of problem that is used on the test.

The student is an assistant to the president of a company. Salesmen think they will sell more if they have access to a small private place. One salesman recommends the SwiftAir 235.  But recently, a SwiftAir 235 crashed, possibly due to a problem in the wing. The president is asking you (her assistant) to study the information and make a A young woman sits at a table with pad of paper and a pen. She is thinking.recommendation.  The information includes:

1. Newspaper articles and editorials
2. A Federal accident report
3. Charts showing the performance of the SwiftAir 235
4. Amateur pilot article comparing SwiftAir to similar sized aircraft
5. Pictures of various models of SwiftAir planes
6. Several company emails related to the topic

Your task is to write a memo to the president making a recommendation and including the evidence and your reasoning to support your recommendation.

Adriana, the young woman in the picture is taking a test similar to this one. She has never seen a test like this. She has never done this sort of task. Adriana is a top student and will probably manage to write a fairly good response, but she does wonders, if this is important enough to test, why no one has taught students how to deal with problems like this.  How do you think you would do on this question?

Obviously, simply reading this, you have none of the facts and can’t really picture how difficult this is. How would you begin? Obviously there will be opposing opinions and reasoning among the materials you have been given.

An intelligent approach to this sort of problem

To get anywhere, or even to live a long time, man has to guess right over and over again, without enough data for a logical answer.    — Robert Heinlein

1. Decide which information is relevant. While it might be interesting to see photos of this and other planes, I seriously doubt that the pictures will provide a relevant information about the cause of the crash.

2. Evaluate your sources.  I’d be most likely to believe information from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, next with large city newspapers with a good reputation for their reporting, then smaller local papers or others I know nothing about. I would never use evidence from the grocery store newspapers. They often make up the “information” in their stories.

I would be more impressed with evidence quoted from an expert in the field, than to people who simply work in the industry, an amateur pilot, or someone who saw the plane crash. I know that eye-witness testimony, while it can sometimes be helpful, is often unreliable. In fact, some people who didn’t even see an event like the plane crash, perhaps they heard the crash and then saw the result) might claim to have seen it so they can get in the papers or on television.

I would rely more on information of an expert who has actually worked with and tested this airplane or who has studied the crash site, rather than an expert on small planes in general.

I would be less influenced by an editorial unless that editorial is based on expert evidence.  Facts are more important than opinions.

3. I would consider the possible bias in each source. Information written by the people in the SwiftAir company will obviously say only positive things about their product. Do you believe all the wonderful things a car salesman tells you about the car you are looking at? Even if there is a problem, they are not likely to tell you. I would trust my mechanic, on the other hand, to give me a fair evaluation of a car.

4. I would compare evidence for, against, and inconclusive. Getting more evidence from reliable sources is helpful. More evidence from unreliable sources in not helpful.

5. If the opinions about the plane crash suggest that either the pilot made an error or the plane’s design was faulty, I would consider other possible causes of the crash. What was the weather like? Is it possible that no one put gas in the plane or that they used the wrong kind of gas? Could a flock of Canada Geese or other birds could have caused the crash.  Some things really do happen by chance.

6. Consider the assumptions you are making. Are they warranted? Or are you missing something?  Consider the assumptions begin made those who wrote the various materials you are using.

7. I would choose the alternative with the strongest evidence and write the memo, explaining my reasoning, explaining why certain sources were unreliable and why certain information wasn’t relevant to the problem. I would focus on meaningful statistics. If thousands of these planes had been flown for years and this was the only crash, that would be different from knowing that only a few dozen of a new type of plane had been purchased. I would want statistics comparing safety records to similar planes.

8. I would try to remain objective, not saying what I would do and why, but explaining what the company should do and how the evidence supports that recommendation.  If I believe that other important data like statistical information comparing safety information for this and similar small planes might exist, I would certainly suggest that the company delay any purchase  until we were able to find and study the statistical data.

9. It is important to remember this is a test, not an actual situation. Think about how the test will be evaluated. Do you believe that you will get more points if you choose the best answer?

I firmly believe that no one will care if you decide to buy the plane or not. There is no right answer. You will be graded on how well you select and use the evidence and how well you analyze  the evidence to support your choice. So, keep this in mind as you study the evidence. Ask yourself how you might use it to support your position.

If you avoid choosing one of the two choices, saying that you needed more or better information, I don’t think you would do well on the test. You are being asked to make a choice. Go ahead and make a choice. Yes, in the real world, delaying the choice until you have more evidence might be wise. But sometimes, decisions need to be made quickly.  Do you buy this stock today or not buy it? The decision cannot wait while you gather more information.

Begin by making the decision to buy or not buy the plane.  You might begin your memo by saying, “Based on the available information, I recommend —-  ” Then, adding the suggestion of a delay is not a bad idea if you can be specific about the additional information that would be helpful.

How can you use this process in other ways?

When our children were teenagers  we taught them how to use Consumer Reports to evaluate different products rather than advertising or advice of friends. Even then it is necessary to set your priorities, basing your selection by cost, reliability, or special features.

If you decide to buy a used car you might want many sources of information to consider before making a choice. You’d consider cost, mileage, reliability, age, rust, tires,etc. You would get information from unbiased sources, not just from the salesman or previous owner.

If you decide to buy a  house, you might evaluate the local schools. You should consider the distance to your job, grocery stores,  hospital and even to your family and friends. You’d want to know  the age of appliances, method and cost of heating, and so much more. You might want to meet the neighbors and ask about the neighborhood. You’d hate to learn after you bought the house, that they people next door were selling drugs or frequently had loud parties late into the night.  You would need to evaluate information and prioritize which details are most important to you.

Take away ambiguity from leadership, and you take away tough decisions and responsibility. What you’re left with is overpaid administration.   — Jason Seidon

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