John Sweller Interview 2: Can we teach problem solving?

This is part of a series of blogs detailing a discussion that I had with John Sweller in mid 2017. See all parts of this series on this page

OL: The next little thought experiment I wanted to test out was based upon your goal-free effect. My understanding is that the initial work surrounding goal-free effect was on physics problems. You could have explored things like, for example, parabolic motion, and asked participants to determine the maximum height of a projectile given an initial launch angle and velocity or something like that. You essentially found that in that context, if you were to say to a group of students, ‘Here’s a launch velocity, here’s a launch angle, work out the maximum height’, then you took the other experimental group and you said: ‘Find out as much stuff as you can given this initial launch velocity and angle.” The group to whom you said ‘find out as much stuff as you can’ would be more likely to find out the maximum height than the group to whom you explicitly said ‘find the maximum height’. Even more surprisingly, if you subsequently gave each group the problem ‘Find maximum height’ in a similar context, the group who had the goal-free question in the first condition would also be more likely to find the maximum height under the goal-specific condition after the initial experimentation phase.

I was wondering if you think it would be at all possible to teach learners to turn problems from goal-specific problems to goal-free problems themselves? For example, perhaps we could conceptualise a general problem solving strategy as: ‘If you don’t think you can do the problem, what you should start doing is to just find stuff out’. Then say, ‘Every 5 or 10 minutes, if you see you’ve worked some stuff out, you should look back, and think about where you were trying to get to in the first place. If you can see how to get there, great. If you can’t, just keep playing around and find some more stuff out.”

JS: That’s smart. We haven’t done that, but it ought to be done. Good idea. You should try it out. Yeah, I can’t see anything but positives to that.

OL: Okay great. Because what I was trying to do in that thought experiment was bring together what a lot of people seem to want, which is to help support people to become competent problem solvers, with your goal-free effect, which is supported by a lot of experimental evidence. So yeah, that’s obviously something that you think could potentially work.  

JS: Yeah, in effect you’d have one group who were given a problem to find whatever it is they have to find and the other group would be told to find whatever it is, but that second group is also told that ‘if you have difficulty finding it, forget about what you’re trying to find, just calculate the values of as many things that you can think of and see how that goes’. (pauses) Hmm, Yeah. You try it.

OL: An area for future research…

It’s important to read the above section in conjunction with the next post, so don’t just stop here otherwise you’ll take away an incomplete picture!

Next post:

3. What’s the difference between the goal-free effect and minimally guided instruction?

All posts in this series:

  1. Worked Examples – What’s the role of students recording their thinking?
  2. Can we teach problem solving?
  3. What’s the difference between the goal-free effect and minimally guided instruction?
  4. Biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge
  5. Motivation, what’s CLT got to do with it?
  6. Productive Failure – Kapur (What does Sweller think about it?)
  7. How do we measure cognitive load?
  8. Can we teach collaboration?
  9. CLT – misconceptions and future directions