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Dustin J. Mitchell

'Teaching Problem Solving: You Can and You Should' (Elizabeth Zwicky)

06 Dec 2006

Mrs. Zwicky gave a really excellent talk that balanced real research in education, in problem solving, and in systems administration. She teaches systems administration to Navy recruits for a defense contractor, in a tutoring setting. The talk addressed the common belief that problem solving skills are essentially innate and can’t be taught. She discussed the problem-solving process in general, using lots of examples (well, “war stories”) from systems admin. Finally, she talked about some of the techniques and skills needed to teach problem solving (or anything, really).

These techniques included scaffolding – building the learners’ conceptual understanding by presenting the right tasks, offering the right support, and convincing the learner to talk about the concepts, not just “what do I type”. Also included was “spotting”, which I assume comes from sports – the idea here is to make sure that the learner doesn’t suffer any horrible consequences from making mistakes. This topic was interesting to me, as someone who bridges education, systems administration, and development. I think it’s important for well-trained, intelligent people to think about and participate in education – systems administrators included (for the record, I’m happy with the NSF’s requirement that scientists do some sort of “community service” as a part of their work for a grant).

I found it relevant to me in two ways. First, the person who replaced me at my previous job is a very green admin. He’s been doing basic IT legwork for a few years – repairing computers, user support, etc. Now he’s in charge of a heterogenous Linux/Windows shop with a bunch of web services, funky applications, and so on. Since he’s in a production environment, questions are always “how do I do XYZ?” rather than “how does SSL work.” That makes it hard to concentrate on teaching the problem-solving that underlies all of this.

I have also tried to teach varoius IT-related things to a bunch of students (programming, administration, etc.). For most, the motivation was missing, and I never figured out how to get around that. For one, though, I found that spotting was an effective way to motivate her to actually try to solve a problem, rather than just requesting and following steps. I asked her to add a printer to a Windows network, but said I wouldn’t answer any questions, but would fix anything that broke while she was working on it. It took a few iterations of the assurances before she started, and it took her a while to work through the process, but she now reflects on this as the best learning experience of our time working together.

During the Q&A session for this talk, I was somewhat disappointed that all of the questions focused on Problem Solving / System Administration – horror stories, “what kind of problem solving is this”, etc. – nobody was interested in the teaching of these skills.