This week, a leader in the world of problem solving research passed away. I had the good fortune to work with Dave back in the late 90s. I was designing a workplace-focused problem solving course and he was our primary subject matter expert.
Warm and erudite, Dave was a joy to work with. Many if not most of the ideas I hope to write about in this journal were heavily influenced by his research and writings. Above all, he taught me to respect that problem solving is not a single, generalized process, but complex, subtle, and above all bound by context.
I remember at the time we were telling him about how one of our clients was extolling a commercially-available decision making tool, a generic problem solving framework (e.g., “Step 1, decide if you really have a problem”), and encouraging us to use something similar in our courseware. “Careful,” commented Dave. “The more generic the problem solving strategy, the less likely it is to solve any particular problem.”
The instructional design lesson for me was that the closer your instruction matches the particular problems that are important to your target population, the more likely it is to be effective. The more generic the instruction, the less likely learners will be able to generalize to their own problems.
Rest in peace, Dave.