Ever wondered how we solve problems? I recently took a course called ‘education psychology’, where we study how the brain works when it comes to teaching and learning. A module on problem solving in particular caught my interest, so I thought I would write about the key things I learnt.

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According to Roger H. Bruning a problem exists when our current state differs our desired state. If we look at this idea more broadly, we can understand a problem as situation that needs to be dealt with and overcome

Problems can be defined in even greater detail when we divide them into seperate categories; ill-defined and well-defined problems.

Ill-defined problems can be solved in different ways. Because an ill-defined problem has multiple solutions it means that there is no one direct method to solve it. Examples of ill-defined problems include; poverty, hunger, plastic waste.

In contrast, well-defined problems have only one correct solution and a guaranteed method for finding it. Example, turning a light on in a dark room, mathematical equation.

Now that we know what problems are, lets look at problem solving!

I’m not going to lie – it’s pretty abstract, but fret not, I’m going to break it down for you! Broadly, we can understand problem solving as “a conscious, deliberate process governed by a naturally occurring sequence of steps” (John Dewey, 1910). Specifically problem solving can be seen as the need to move from a current state to a desired state.


Confused? So was I! But then I discovered this theory called ‘The Problem Space Theory’ (1972) which suggests that people solve problems by searching in a problem space

Lets say we have a problem (image below).

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Now lets break down this problem according to the Problem Space Theory.

First up is the initial or current state – this is the starting position, where the learner first encounters the problem.

At the other end of the problem is the goal state i.e. the resolution of the problem.

The little dots that take up the space between the initial and goal state are operators. Operators are actions, decisions and choices we make in order to move from one state to another i.e. how we solve the problem.

Constraints are restraints or restrictions placed on operators – this could be an algebraic rule or a limitation such as time, money or a restriction placed on a task by a teacher.

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Hopefully I have sparked your interest on problems and problem solving. Feel free to get in touch with me to learn more! You can read all about the psychology of problem solving.



-Miss Mileto





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