How many times can a problem be solved?

How many times can a problem be solved?

If the answer is available to everyone, can it be solved more than once?

Is there any point in asking students to solve problems where not only has the answer been found but it is available to anyone with digital access and the skills to find it?

Should efforts in education be directed more towards students developing their skills to locate previously found answers than to solving problems for which solutions already exist?

Surely students should be problem solvers too so should students spend their time solving problems that already have available solutions or apply these solutions to the next step of the problem or to some unique situation?


These are the questions I was left with after listening to Daniel Pink’s keynote address and Alan November’s session at the FISA BC 2016 Convention.

Pink suggested that problem solving is a useful skill but that problem finding is a more useful skill.

November suggested that internet tools exist to share not just information but knowledge and more of students’ time should be spent using this knowledge to solve new and unique problems rather than simply rehearsing the solutions and steps identified by previous learners.

November spent much of his presentation discussing the power of the knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha which doesn’t just access information as stored (as a search engine does) it re-sorts it, remixes it. Essentially, November suggests, it turns information into knowledge.


So with such tools as Wolfram Aplpha, the question arises: What aspects of the knowledge base are suited toward archiving and accessing when appropriate and what aspects are essential for students to know and understand so that they can understand themselves and the world?

In other words, what learning should be repeated, generation after generation, and when is it appropriate to simply start with what is already known and go from there? Is it necessary for students to always start at “square one”, or is it possible to enter the subject at a later point and find the knowledge that has been created before and take it further.

The question is directed more towards content than foundational skills. Each generation needs to learn to read and write; there is no mechanism to pass that on through the internet. But when there is a mechanism, the question of whether what is being learned is actually helpful must be asked.

For years, not just in the Big Ideas of BC’s new curriculum, a shift has been underway to develop understandings, not just acquire knowledge. But with the development of tools to access the learning of others, and more importantly the ability of students to, in Daniel Pink’s phrase, curate this information, the speed of the shift may accelerate.

So beyond inquiry-based learning and developing understanding, what does that look like?

November suggests that students should spend less time solving problems and more time learning about topics that involve a concept or idea. He notes this idea has been foundational to the teaching of the US Military Academy at West Point for decades. The difference is that instead of solving a problem related to volume, the student creates their own problem that involves volume. Doing so allows the student to take what is already known to both create and solve a unique problem, essentially building on the knowledge of others rather than simply repeating it. More time is spent applying knowledge; less time is spent recreating it.

Clearly a level of general knowledge is needed to understand the world. Nevertheless, as we become increasingly confident in the internet’s ability to store information and knowledge (think about Gmail and Outlook archiving emails instead of deleting them) and students develop greater abilities to access information and knowledge, educators may become increasingly comfortable with students using what is already known to solve new and unique problems rather than simply repeating the steps established by others to solve a problem.

In the age of the knowledge engine, the question, “Do students really need to learn this?” has become even more complicated and pertinent.