Using Problem-Solving Approaches In Vocational Education

in Problem-solving

The problem-solving approach to teaching and learning has evolved from the theories of John Dewey. It has been used especially in agricultural education as a way to relate classroom learning to real-life situations or problems. This Brief focuses on practice applications of problem solving in vocational education and their relationship to contextual learning environments.
Problem Solving for Teaching and Learning
Agricultural education has emphasized problem solving as a means of helping students to develop decision-making skills and teachers to alter their teaching methodology. The traditional method of problem solving for decision making reflects Dewey’s five-step model for learning, expanded to six steps by Newcomb, McCracken, and Warmbrod (Straquadine and Egelund 1992): (1) identification of the problem situation: What is happening?; (2) definition of the problem: What must be done?; (3) search for information: What do we need to know?; (4) analysis of data: What are the important considerations?; (5) testing possible solutions: What will happen if this action is followed?; and (6) conclusion: What action is most promising?
The problem-solving method of teaching incorporates problem-solving activities, but places the responsibility for learning on the student. It requires teachers to move from the traditional instructional model to one that engages teachers and students as partners in learning, with the teacher functioning in the role of facilitator or coach rather than leader or all-knowing authority. It requires the use of problems that have real meaning to students, thus motivating them to reach a solution.
Educators and special reform groups in other subject areas refer to a process known as “problem-based learning,” which has many similarities to the problem-solving approach. In problem-based instruction, all learning is done in context, within the learner’s social environment. Learning occurs as students negotiate with others and evaluate the viability of each individual’s understanding (Savery and Duffy 1995). Stepien and Gallagher (1993) discuss four critical features of problem-based learning:
1. Engagement. The problem raises concepts and principles relevant to the content area and addresses real issues that connect to the larger social context of the students’ personal world.
2. Inquiry. The problem is ill-structured in that it has no one right answer. It often changes as more information is found. It requires exploration to define and refine the questions and ideas surrounding the problem.
3. Solution building. In problem-based learning, solutions are generated by the students who are the problem solvers; teachers are the coaches. As problem solvers, students engage in observation, inquiry, and investigation into hypotheses and issues, and they formulate conclusions that are consistent with the nature of the problem. As coaches, teachers promote learning by acting as models, demonstrating behaviors they want their students to adopt. They prompt students to take ownership of the problem and responsibility for its solution, and then fade into the background.
4. Reflection. Assessments, as authentic companions to the problem, offer a structure for reflection. They focus on the complexity of both the reasoning process and the subject-matter concepts within the problem, providing standards to act as benchmarks for thinking.
For effective use of a problem-solving or problem-based approach to teaching and learning, teachers will have to alter (1) the balance of power in the classroom, (2) the focus of attention, and (3) their teaching skills (Flowers 1992).
Issues Involved in the Problem-Solving Approach
Reluctance to deviate from traditional teaching methods and to learn and incorporate a new teaching philosophy and practices is a major obstacle to adoption of the problem-solving approach to teaching. Garton and Cano (1996) found that cooperating student agriculture teachers devoted less than 20% of instructional time to a problem-solving approach to teaching. Classroom teachers cooperating with the study spend most of their time on maintaining subject-matter interest; student teachers focused primarily on seeking information to resolve the problem.
Learning style is another factor thought to influence teacher use of problem-based instruction and student outcomes. Various research studies have found that “teachers of agriculture organized their lessons on a problem-solving basis, but did not follow through with active problem-solving teaching” (ibid., p. 48). Cano and Garton (1994) report that agriculture teachers with a “field-independent” (concrete rather than abstract) learning style were more apt to use problem solving in teaching. In a study of Illinois secondary students in agriculture, Dyer and Osborne (1996b) found that students classified as “field-independent” learners significantly increased their scores when taught using a problem-solving rather than subject-matter approach. Additionally, a study analyzing the effects of teaching approach across all learning styles-field-independent (concrete) learners, field-dependent (abstract) learners, and field-neutral (somewhere between concrete and abstract) learners-showed that field-neutral learners “scored significantly higher on achievement tests when taught in classes using the problem-solving approach” (Dyer and Osborne 1996a, p. 43). This approach was superior, however, only when relevant and meaningful problems were introduced (ibid.). The results from these and other studies of problem solving in agriculture education suggest that “each type of learning style benefited from instruction using the problem-solving approach” (p. 41).

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Using Problem-Solving Approaches In Vocational Education

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This article was published on 2010/10/08