John Dewey Knew How to Solve Problems
Kevin McClureGlobalEnglish Magazine
Every day we face small and large problems in our personal and professional lives. We think about these problems, discuss them with friends or colleagues, and, eventually, make a decision about whether or not to do something about them. The process of dealing with problems can be extremely time consuming, and a group process may result in a solution that satisfies no one. For an organized approach to problem solving, there are many step-by-step models. One of the most famous of these models is the process developed by the American educator and philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952).
Dewey believed that the best way to educate people was to present them with practical, everyday problems or situations and make them think their way through to a solution. In the process of learning to do something, they were forced to analyze the situation. At the University of Chicago Laboratory School, which Dewey founded and ran with his wife, Alice, children cooked their own breakfast, which taught them important basic facts about mathematics and science. In the process of cooking, the children learned how to analyze problems that arose, such as pancakes that were too flat. To help students become more efficient in analyzing and solving problems, Dewey developed a detailed process for dealing with problems. The Dewey Problem-Solving Sequence is a five-step process that remains particularly popular in a variety of forms for both education and business. The basic component of the process is a series of questions in each step that people ask themselves and others, often in a group. The questions may vary somewhat, depending on the problem.
Let's take a hypothetical group of executives from a computer-manufacturing company and see how they might apply Dewey's process to a specific problem facing one of their factories.
The first step is to define the problem. This involves answering basic questions about the problem such as the following:
What is the specific problem?
Where is the problem?
When did the problem start?
Who is involved in the problem?
The executives identify a problem in their Chicago factory, whose productivity is far below that of the other factories that the company owns. This factory has 200 employees. The factory's productivity has been dropping steadily for about ten years.
The second step in the process is to analyze the problem. Typical questions are:
What is the cause of the problem?
What is the result of the problem?
What methods are being used now to deal with the problem?
The computer executives agree that the basic cause of the factory's low productivity is outdated equipment. The other factories have high-tech assembly lines with robots helping the workers, while humans still do all of the work in the problem factory. One result of this problem is workers with low morale who are worried about being laid off. The factory has high employee turnover because many workers look for more secure employment. The factory managers are dealing with the problem by spending a lot of their time hiring and training new workers.
The third step in the problem-solving sequence is to propose solutions. This is generally a brainstorming session, where participants throw out ideas quickly without critiquing them.
The computer executives come up with a variety of solutions:
• Close the problem factory.
• Update the factory with state-of-the-art technology.
• Raise the salaries of the workers and have the company CEO guarantee their job security.
In the fourth step, group members evaluate the proposed solutions. They examine each of the proposed solutions in detail and list the advantages and disadvantages of each solution. They look at short-term and long-term effects of the solution.
For the three proposed solutions, the executives list the following:
• Closing the factory would save the company a lot of money, but the company's overall production capacity would drop.
• Updating the factory with new technology would be extremely expensive and the factory might have to close during the renovation, but the factory's productivity would rise dramatically after it was reopened.
• Increasing wages would be expensive for the factory, and the problem of the old equipment would still exist.
The final step in the process is to select one solution. If the group has done a thorough job in the previous steps, they should have enough information to make a final decision. They will have to compare the ease of implementation and overall effect of the various solutions.
The computer executives look at projections for the personal computer market for the next ten years. Demand for personal computers is expected to increase steadily, so they decide to renovate the factory with new technology to increase overall production. The other two solutions would not increase production capacity.
Going through this comprehensive process, the executives heard a variety of opinions and examined the situation at an almost microscopic level. They spent a great deal of time making the decision, but they can feel satisfied that they have done their best in this difficult situation. This is exactly how Dewey intended for people to approach their problems.
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