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Use the provided Worksheet to provide a minimum 300-word response to the following:
Explain the Five-Step Model in Chapter 3 of Thinking Critically, giving a brief description of each step in the provided chart. This should be no more than 50 words of the 300-word minimum.
Select a personal problem from the list below and summarize in a minimum of 250-word response how you intend to solve the problem selected by applying the Five-Step Model to solve it. Complete this in the area provided within the Worksheet:
- Ask your instructor for approval of a personal problem about which you would like to write
Format your Worksheet consistent with APA guidelines.
Submit your Worksheet to the Assignment Files tab.
Material:External Book: Chapter 3: Thinking critically. ALSO, Please look at uploaded docs: Rubric, Worksheet and Citations and References
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CHAPTER 3 Solving Problems
Thinking Critically About Problems
Throughout your life, you are continually solving problems, including the many minor problems that you solve each day: negotiating a construction delay on the road, working through an unexpected difficulty at your job, helping an upset child deal with a disappointment. As a student, you are faced with a steady stream of academic assignments, quizzes, exams, and papers. Relatively simple problems like these do not require a systematic or complex analysis. For example, to do well on an exam, you need to define the problem (what areas will the exam cover, and what will be the format?), identify and evaluate various alternatives (what are possible study approaches?), and then put all these factors together to reach a solution (what will be your study plan and schedule?). But the difficult and complicated problems in life require more attention.
Problems are the crucibles that forge the strength of our characters. When you are tested by life—forced to overcome adversity and think your way through the most challenging situations—you will emerge a more intelligent, resourceful, and resilient person. However, if you lead a sheltered existence that insulates you from life’s trials, or if you flee from situations at the first sign of trouble, then you are likely to be weak and unable to cope with the eruptions and explosions that are bound to occur. Adversity reveals the person you have become, the character you have created. As the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius explained, “So it is more useful to watch a man in times of peril, and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is; for then, at last, words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.”
The quality of your life can be traced in large measure to your competency as a problem solver. The fact that some people are consistently superior problem solvers is largely due to their ability to approach problems in an informed and organized way. Less competent problem solvers just muddle through when it comes to confronting adversity, using hit-or-miss strategies that rarely provide the best results. How would you rate yourself as a problem solver? Do you generally approach difficulties confidently, analyze them clearly, and reach productive solutions? Or do you find that you often get “lost” and confused in such situations, unable to understand the problem clearly and to break out of mental ruts? Of course, you may find that you are very adept at solving problems in one area of your life—such as your job—and miserable at solving problems in other areas, such as your love life or your relationships with your children.
Becoming an expert problem solver is, for the most part, a learned skill that you can develop by practicing and applying the principles described in this chapter. You can learn to view problems aschallenges, opportunities for growth instead of obstacles or burdens. You can become a person who attacks adversity with confidence and enthusiasm.
Introduction to Solving Problems
Consider the following problem:
- My best friend is addicted to drugs, but he won’t admit it. Jack always liked to drink, but I never thought too much about it. After all, a lot of people like to drink socially, get relaxed, and have a good time. But over the last few years he’s started using other drugs as well as alcohol, and it’s ruining his life. He’s stopped taking classes at the college and will soon lose his job if he doesn’t change. Last week I told him that I was really worried about him, but he told me that he has no drug problem and that in any case it really isn’t any of my business. I just don’t know what to do. I’ve known Jack since we were in grammar school together and he’s a wonderful person. It’s as if he’s in the grip of some terrible force and I’m powerless to help him.
In working through this problem, the student who wrote this will have to think carefully and systematically in order to reach a solution. To think effectively in situations like this, we usually ask ourselves a series of questions:
- 1. What is the problem?
- 2. What are the alternatives?
- 3. What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of each alternative?
- 4. What is the solution?
- 5. How well is the solution working?
Let’s explore these questions further—and the thinking process that they represent— by applying them to the problem described here.
What Is the Problem? There are a variety of ways to define the problem facing this student. Describe as specifically as possible what you think the problem is.
What Are the Alternatives? In dealing with this problem, you have a wide variety of possible actions to consider before selecting the best choices. Identify some of the alternatives you might consider. One possibility is listed already.
- 1. Speak to my friend in a candid and forceful way to convince him that he has a serious problem.
- 2. and so on.
What Are the Advantages and/or Disadvantages of Each Alternative? Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each of the possibilities you identified so you can weigh your choices and decide on the best course of action.
- 1. Speak to my friend in a candid and forceful way to convince him that he has a serious problem. Advantage: He may respond to my direct emotional appeal, acknowledge that he has a problem, and seek help. Disadvantage: He may react angrily, further alienating me from him and making it more difficult for me to have any influence on him.
- 2. Advantage: Disadvantage: and so on.
What Is the Solution? After evaluating the various alternatives, select what you think is the most effective alternative for solving the problem and describe the sequence of steps you would take to act on the alternative.
How Well Is the Solution Working? The final step in the process is to review the solution and decide whether it is working. If it is not, you must be able to modify your solution. Describe what results would inform you that the alternative you had selected to pursue was working well or poorly. If you concluded that your alternative was working poorly, describe what your next action would be.
In this situation, trying to figure out the best way to help your friend recognize his problem and seek treatment requires making a series of decisions. If we understand the way our minds operate when we are thinking effectively, then we can apply this understanding to improve our thinking in new, challenging situations. In the remainder of this chapter, we will explore a more sophisticated version of this problem-solving approach and apply it to a variety of complex problems.
Thinking Activity 3.1
ANALYZING A PROBLEM YOU SOLVED
- 1. Describe in specific detail an important problem you have solved recently.
- 2. Explain how you went about solving the problem. What were the steps, strategies, and approaches you used to understand the problem and make an informed decision?
- 3. Analyze the organization exhibited in your thinking process by completing the five-step problem-solving method we have been exploring.
- 4. Share your problem with other members of the class and have them try to analyze and solve it. Then explain the solution you arrived at.
Solving Complex Problems
Imagine yourself in the following situations. What would your next move be, and what are your reasons for it?
- I am a procrastinator. Whenever I have something important to do, especially if it’s difficult or unpleasant, I tend to put it off. Though this chronic delaying bothers me, I try to suppress my concern and instead work on more trivial things. It doesn’t matter how much time I allow for certain responsibilities, I always end up waiting until the last minute to really focus and get things done, or I overschedule too many things for the time available. I usually meet my deadlines, but not always, and I don’t enjoy working under this kind of pressure. In many cases I know that I’m not producing my best work. To make matters worse, the feeling that I’m always behind causes me to feel really stressed out and undermines my confidence. I’ve tried every kind of schedule and technique, but my best intentions simply don’t last, and I end up slipping into my old habits. I must learn to get my priorities in order and act on them in an organized way so that I can lead a well-balanced and happier life.
- My problem is the unwelcome weight that has attached itself to me. I was always in pretty good physical shape when I was younger, and if I gained a few extra pounds, they were easy to lose if I adjusted my diet slightly or exercised a little more. As I’ve gotten older, however, it seems easier to add the weight and more difficult to take it off. I’m eating healthier than I ever have before and getting just as much exercise, but the pounds just keep on coming. My clothes are tight, I’m feeling slow and heavy, and my self-esteem is suffering. How can I lose this excess poundage?
- One problem in my life that has remained unsolved for about twelve years is my inability to stop smoking. I know it is dangerous for my health, and I tell my children that they should not smoke. They then tell me that I should stop, and I explain to them that it is very hard to do. I have tried to stop many times without success. The only times I previously was able to stop were during my two pregnancies because I didn’t want to endanger my children’s health. But after their births, I went back to smoking, although I realize that secondhand smoke can also pose a health hazard. I want to stop smoking because it’s dangerous, but I also enjoy it. Why do I continue, knowing it can only damage me and my children?
Loss of Financial Aid
- I’m just about to begin my second year of college, following a very successful first year. To this point, I have financed my education through a combination of savings, financial aid, and a part-time job (sixteen hours per week) at a local store. However, I just received a letter from my college stating that it was reducing my financial aid package by half due to budgetary problems. The letter concludes, “We hope this aid reduction will not prove to be too great an inconvenience.” From my perspective, this reduction in aid isn’t an inconvenience— it’s a disaster! My budget last year was already tight, and with my job, I had barely enough time to study, participate in a few college activities, and have a modest (but essential) social life. To make matters worse, my mother has been ill, a condition that has reduced her income and created financial problems at home. I’m feeling panicked! What in the world am I going to do?
Thinking Critically About Visuals
“Eureka! I have created something never seen before!”
This photograph of Steve Jobs introducing the iPad to the world for the first time is a stunning image. In what ways was the iPad a completely unique creation? Studying the photograph, how do you think Steve Jobs feels at this moment? Why do people usually settle for conventional alternatives when trying to solve problems, rather than pushing for truly innovative ideas? Describe a time when you were able to solve a difficult problem by using a genuinely creative solution. How did this experience make you feel?
When we first approach a difficult problem, it often seems a confused tangle of information, feelings, alternatives, opinions, considerations, and risks. The problem of the college student just described is a complicated situation that does not seem to offer a single simple solution. Without the benefit of a systematic approach, our thoughts might wander through the tangle of issues like this:
- I want to stay in school… but I’m not going to have enough money … I could work more hours at my job… but I might not have enough time to study and get top grades… and if all I’m doing is working and studying, what about my social life? … and what about Mom and the kids? … They might need my help … I could drop out of school for a while … but if I don’t stay in school, what kind of future do I have?…
Very often when we are faced with difficult problems like this, we simply do not know where to begin trying to solve them. Frustrated by not knowing where to take the first step, we often give up trying to understand the problem. Instead, we may
- 1. Act impulsively without thought or consideration (e.g., “I’ll just quit school”).
- 2. Do what someone else suggests without seriously evaluating the suggestion (e.g., “Tell me what I should do—I’m tired of thinking about this”).
- 3. Do nothing as we wait for events to make the decision for us (e.g., “I’ll just wait and see what happens before doing anything”).
None of these approaches is likely to succeed in the long run, and they can gradually reduce our confidence in dealing with complex problems. An alternative to these reactions is to think criticallyabout the problem, analyzing it with an organized approach based on the five-step method described earlier.
Although we will be using an organized method for working through difficult problems and arriving at thoughtful conclusions, the fact is that our minds do not always work in such a logical, step-by-step fashion. Effective problem solvers typically pass through all the steps we will be examining, but they don’t always do so in the sequence we will be describing. Instead, the best problem solvers have an integrated and flexible approach to the process in which they deploy a repertoire of problem-solving strategies as needed. Sometimes exploring the various alternatives helps them go back and redefine the original problem; similarly, seeking to implement the solution can often suggest new alternatives.
The key point is that, although the problem-solving steps are presented in a logical sequence here, you are not locked into following these steps in a mechanical and unimaginative way. At the same time, in learning a problem-solving method like this, it is generally not wise to skip steps because each step deals with an important aspect of the problem. As you become more proficient in using the method, you will find that you can apply its concepts and strategies to problem solving in an increasingly flexible and natural fashion, just as learning the basics of an activity like driving a car gradually gives way to a more organic and integrated performance of the skills involved.
Before applying a method like the one just outlined above to your problem, however, you first need to prepare yourself by accepting the problem.
ACCEPTING THE PROBLEM
To solve a problem, you must first be willing to accept the problem by acknowledging that the problem exists, identifying the problem, and committing yourself to trying to solve it.
Successful problem solvers are highly motivated and willing to persevere through the many challenges and frustrations of the problem-solving process. How do you find the motivation and commitment that prepare you to enter the problem-solving process? There are no simple answers, but a number of strategies may be useful to you:
- 1. List the benefits. Make a detailed list of the benefits you will derive from successfully dealing with the problem. Such a process helps you clarify why you might want to tackle the problem, motivates you to get started, and serves as a source of encouragement when you encounter difficulties or lose momentum.
- 2. Formalize your acceptance. When you formalize your acceptance of a problem, you are “going on record,” either by preparing a signed declaration or by signing a “contract” with someone else. This formal commitment serves as an explicit statement of your original intentions that you can refer to if your resolve weakens.
Problem-Solving Method (Advanced)
- Step 1: What is the problem?
- a. What do I know about the situation?
- b. What results am I aiming for in this situation?
- c. How can I define the problem?
- Step 2: What are the alternatives?
- a. What are the boundaries of the problem situation?
- b. What alternatives are possible within these boundaries?
- Step 3: What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of each alternative?
- a. What are the advantages of each alternative?
- b. What are the disadvantages of each alternative?
- c. What additional information do I need to evaluate each alternative?
- Step 4: What is the solution?
- a. Which alternative(s) will I pursue?
- b. What steps can I take to act on the alternative(s) chosen?
- Step 5: How well is the solution working?
- a. What is my evaluation?
- b. What adjustments are necessary?
- Step 1: What is the problem?
- 3. Accept responsibility for your life. Each of us has the potential to control the direction of our lives, but to do so we must accept our freedom to choose and the responsibility that goes with it. As you saw in the last chapter, critical thinkers actively work to take charge of their lives rather than letting themselves be passively controlled by external forces.
- 4. Create a “worst-case” scenario. Some problems persist because you are able to ignore their possible implications. When you use this strategy, you remind yourself, as graphically as possible, of the potentially disastrous consequences of your actions. For example, using vivid color photographs and research conclusions, you can remind yourself that excessive smoking, drinking, or eating can lead to myriad health problems and social and psychological difficulties as well as an early demise.
- 5. Identify what’s holding you back. If you are having difficulty accepting a problem, it is usually because something is holding you back. Whatever the constraints, using this strategy involves identifying and describing all of the factors that are preventing you from attacking the problem and then addressing these factors one at a time.
STEP 1: WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Once you have accepted the problem, the first step in solving a problem is to determine exactly what the central issues of the problem are. If you do not clearly understand what the problem really is, then your chances of solving it are considerably reduced. For example, consider the different formulations of the following problems.
“School is boring.”
“I feel bored in school.”
“I’m a failure.”
“I just failed an exam.”
In each of these cases, a very general conclusion (left column) has been replaced by a more specific characterization of the problem (right column). The general conclusions (e.g., “I’m a failure”) do not suggest productive ways of resolving the difficulties. On the other hand, the more specific descriptions of the problem situation (e.g., “I just failed an exam”) do permit us to attack the problem with useful strategies. Correct identification of a problem is essential if you are going to perform a successful analysis and reach an appropriate conclusion.
Let us return to the college finances problem we encountered on pages 109–110 and analyze it using our problem-solving method. (Note: As you work through this problem-solving approach, apply the steps and strategies to an unsolved problem in your own life. You will have an opportunity to write your analysis when you complete Thinking Activity 3.2 on page 124.) To complete the first major step of this problem-solving approach—“What is the problem?”—address these three questions:
- 1. What do I know about the situation?
- 2. What results am I aiming for in this situation?
- 3. How can I define the problem?
Step 1A: What Do I Know About the Situation? Solving a problem begins with determining what information you know to be the case and what information you think might be the case. You need to have a clear idea of the details of your beginning circumstances to explore the problem successfully.
You can identify and organize what you know about the problem situation by using key questions.In Chapter 2, we examined six types of questions that can be used to explore situations and issues:fact, interpretation, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and application. By asking—and trying to answer—questions of fact, you are establishing a sound foundation for the exploration of your problem. Answer the following questions of fact—who, what, where, when, how, why—about the problem described at the beginning of the chapter on page 107.
- 1. Who are the people involved in this situation? Who will benefit from solving this problem? Who can help me solve this problem?
- 2. What are the various parts or dimensions of the problem? What are my strengths and resources for solving this problem? What additional information do I need to solve this problem?
- 3. Where can I find people or additional information to help me solve the problem?
- 4. When did the problem begin? When should the problem be resolved?
- 5. How did the problem develop or come into being?
- 6. Why is solving this problem important to me? Why is this problem difficult to solve?
- 7. Additional questions:
Step 1B: What Results Am I Aiming for in This Situation? The second part of answering the question “What is the problem?” consists of identifying the specific results or goals you are trying to achieve, encouraging you to look ahead to the future. The results are those goals whose achievement will eliminate the problem. In this respect, it is similar to the process of establishing and working toward your goals that you examined in Chapter 1. To identify your results, ask yourself: “What are the objectives that, once achieved, will solve this problem?” For instance, one of the results or objectives in the sample problem is having enough money to pay for college. Describe additional results you might be trying to achieve in this situation.
Step 1C: How Can I Define the Problem? Conclude Step 1 by defining the problem as clearly and specifically as possible. Defining the problem is a crucial task in the entire problem-solving process because this definition determines the direction of the analysis. To define the problem, you need to identify its central issue(s). Sometimes defining the problem is relatively straightforward, such as: “Trying to find enough time to exercise.” Often, however, identifying the central issue of a problem is a complex process. In fact, you may only begin to develop a clear idea of the problem as you engage in the process of trying to solve it. For example, you might begin by believing that your problem is, say, not having the ability to succeed, and end by concluding that the problem is really a fear of success.
Although there are no simple formulas for defining challenging problems, you can pursue several strategies in identifying the central issue most effectively:
- 1. View the problem from different perspectives. As you saw in Chapter 2, perspective-taking is a key ingredient of thinking critically, and it can help you zero in on many problems as well. In the college finances problem, how would you describe the following perspectives? Your perspective: The college’s perspective: Your parents’ perspective:
- 2. Identify component problems. Larger problems are often composed of component problems. To define the larger problem, it is often necessary to identify and describe the subproblems that comprise it. For example, poor performance at school might be the result of a number of factors, such as ineffective study habits, inefficient time management, and preoccupation with a personal problem. Defining, and dealing effectively with, the larger problem means defining and dealing with the subproblems first. Identify possible subproblems in the sample problem: Subproblem a: Subproblem b:
- 3. State the problem clearly and specifically. A third defining strategy is to state the problem as clearly and specifically as possible, based on an examination of the results that need to be achieved to solve the problem. If you state the problem in very general terms, you won’t have a clear idea of how best to proceed in dealing with it. But if you can describe your problem in more specific terms, then your description will begin to suggest actions you can take to solve the problem. Examine the differences between the statements of the following problem: General: “My problem is money.” More specific: “My problem is budgeting my money so that I won’t always run out near the end of the month.” Most specific: “My problem is developing the habit and the discipline to budget my money so that I won’t always run out near the end of the month.” Review your analysis of the sample problem and then define the problem as clearly and specifically as possible.
STEP 2: WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?
Once you have identified your problem clearly and specifically your next move is to examine the possible actions that might help you solve the problem. Before you list the alternatives, determine first which actions are possible and which are impossible. You can do this by exploring theboundaries of the problem situation.
Step 2A: What Are the Boundaries of the Problem Situation? Boundaries are the limits in the problem situation that you cannot change. They are part of the problem, and they must be accepted and dealt with. At the same time, you must be careful not to identify as boundaries circumstances that can actually be changed. For instance, in the sample problem, you might assume that your problem must be solved in your current location without realizing that relocating to another, less expensive college is one of your options. Identify additional boundaries that might be part of the sample situation and some of the questions you would want to answer regarding these boundaries.
Step 2B: What Alternatives Are Possible Within These Boundaries? After you have established a general idea of the boundaries of the problem situation, identify the courses of action possible within these boundaries. Of course, identifying all the possible alternatives is not always easy; in fact, it may be part of your problem. Often we do not see a way out of a problem because our thinking is fixed in certain perspectives. This is an opportunity for you to make use of your creative thinking abilities. When people approach problems, they generally focus on the two or three obvious possibilities and then keep churning these around. Instead, a much more productive approach is to try to come up with ten, fifteen, or twenty alternatives, encouraging yourself to go beyond the obvious. In truth, the most inventive and insightful alternative is much more likely to be alternative number 17 or number 26 than it is number 2 or number 4. You can use several strategies to help you break out of conventional patterns of thought and encourage you to generate a full range of innovative possibilities:
- 1. Discuss the problem with other people. Discussing possible alternatives with others uses a number of the aspects of critical thinking you explored in Chapter 2, such as being open to seeing situations from different viewpoints and discussing your ideas with others in an organized way. As critical thinkers we live—and solve problems—in a community. Other people can often suggest possible alternatives that we haven’t thought of, in part because they are outside the situation and thus have a more objective perspective, and in part because they view the world differently than we do, based on their past experiences and their personalities. In addition, discussions are often creative experiences that generate ideas. The dynamics of these interactions often lead to ideas and solutions that are greater than the individual “sum” of those involved.
- 2. Brainstorm ideas. Brainstorming builds on the strengths of working with other people to generate ideas and solve problems. In a typical brainstorming session, a group of people work together to generate as many ideas as possible in a specific period of time. Ideas are not judged or evaluated because this tends to inhibit the free flow of ideas and discourages people from making suggestions. Evaluation is deferred until a later stage. A useful visual adjunct to brainstorming is creating mind maps, a process described in Chapter 7, “Forming and Applying Concepts.”
- 3. Change your location. Your perspective on a problem is often tied to its location. Sometimes you need a fresh perspective; getting away from the location of the problem situation lets you view it with more clarity.
Using these strategies, identify alternatives to help solve the sample problem.
Thinking Critically About Visuals
“Necessity Is the Mother of Invention”
This photo is of a windmill designed and built by William Kamkwamba in 2003 in Masitala, a village in Malawi, Africa, for the purpose of generating power for his parents’ home. At the time, Kamkwamba was just a teenager, and he researched and taught himself how to build the windmill all on his own using local scrap materials that he could find. This vividly illustrates the point that creative problem solving is both innovative and useful in a practical way, and that it often makes use of available materials—whatever they are—thus underscoring the wisdom of the statement “Necessity is the mother of invention.” What other examples of creative innovation have you run into in the course of everyday life?
STEP 3: WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES AND/OR DISADVANTAGES OF EACH ALTERNATIVE?
Once you have identified the various alternatives, your next step is to evaluate them by using the evaluation questions described in Chapter 2. Each possible course of action has certain advantages, in the sense that if you select that alternative, there will be some positive results. At the same time, each of the possible courses of action likely has disadvantages, because selecting that alternative may involve a cost or a risk of negative results. Examine the potential advantages and/or disadvantages in order to determine how helpful each course of action would be.
Thinking Critically About Visuals
“I Have a Creative Idea!”
Most problems have more than one possible solution, and to discover the most creative ideas, we need to go beyond the obvious. Imagine that you are faced with the challenge of designing an enclosure that would protect an egg from breaking when dropped from a three-story building; then describe your own creative solution for this challenge. Where did your creative idea come from? How does it compare with the solutions of other students in your class?
Step 3A: What Are the Advantages of Each Alternative? One alternative you may have listed in Step 2 for the sample problem might include the following advantages:
Attend college part-time
This would remove some of the immediate time and money pressures I am experiencing while still allowing me to prepare for the future. I would have more time to focus on the courses that I am taking and to work additional hours.
Identify the advantages of each of the alternatives that you listed in Step 2. Be sure that your responses are thoughtful and specific.
Step 3B: What Are the Disadvantages of Each Alternative? You also need to consider the disadvantages of each alternative. The alternative you listed for the sample problem might include the following disadvantages:
Attend college part-time
It would take me much longer to complete my schooling, thus delaying my progress toward my goals. Also, I might lose motivation and drop out before completing school because the process would be taking so long. Being a part-time student might even threaten my eligibility for financial aid.
Now identify the disadvantages of each of the alternatives that you listed. Be sure that your responses are thoughtful and specific.
Step 3C: What Additional Information Do I Need to Evaluate Each Alternative?Determine what you must know (information needed) to evaluate and compare the alternatives. In addition, you need to figure out the best places to get this information (sources).
To identify the information you need, ask yourself the question “What if I select this alternative?” For instance, one alternative in the sample problem was “Attend college part-time.” When you ask yourself the question “What if I attend college part-time?” you are trying to predict what will occur if you select this course of action. To make these predictions, you must find the information to answer certain questions:
- • How long will it take me to complete my schooling?
- • How long can I continue in school without losing interest and dropping out?
- • Will I threaten my eligibility for financial aid if I become a part-time student?
Possible sources for this information include the following: myself, other part-time students, school counselors, the financial aid office.
Identify the information needed and the sources of this information for each of the alternatives that you identified. Be sure that your responses are thoughtful and specific.
STEP 4: WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
The purpose of Steps 1 through 3 is to analyze your problem in a systematic and detailed fashion—to work through the problem in order to become thoroughly familiar with it and the possible solutions to it. Once the problem is broken down in this way, the final step should be to try to put the pieces back together—that is, to decide on a thoughtful course of action based on your increased understanding. Even though this sort of problem analysis does not guarantee finding a specific solution to the problem, it should deepen your understanding of exactly what the problem is about. And in locating and evaluating your alternatives, it should give you some very good ideas about the general direction you should move in and the immediate steps you should take.
Step 4A: Which Alternative(s) Will I Pursue? There is no simple formula or recipe to tell you which alternatives to select. As you work through the different courses of action that are possible, you may find that you can immediately rule some out. For example, in the sample problem, you may know with certainty that you do not want to attend college part-time (alternative 1) because you will forfeit your remaining financial aid. However, it may not be so simple to select which of the other alternatives you wish to pursue. How do you decide?
The decisions we make usually depend on what we believe to be most important to us. These beliefs regarding what is most important to us are known as values. Our values are the starting points of our actions and strongly influence our decisions. Our values help us set priorities in life. We might decide that, for the present, going to school is more important than having an active social life. In this case, going to school is a higher priority than having an active social life. Unfortunately, our values are not always consistent with each other—we may have to chooseeither to go to school or to have an active social life. Both activities may be important to us; they are simply not compatible with each other. Very often the conflicts between our values constitute the problem. Let’s examine some strategies for selecting alternatives that might help us solve the problem.
- 1. Evaluate and compare alternatives. Although each alternative may have certain advantages and disadvantages, not all advantages are equally desirable or potentially effective. Thus it makes sense to evaluate and rank the various alternatives based on how effective they are likely to be and how they match up with your value system. A good place to begin is the “Results” stage, Step 1B. Examine each of the alternatives and evaluate how well it will contribute to achieving the results you are aiming for. Rank the alternatives or develop your own rating system to assess their relative effectiveness.
Thinking Critically About Visuals
“Why Didn’t I Think of That?”
Many creative ideas—Like Post-it Notes—seem obvious after they have been invented. The essence of creativity is thinking of innovative ideas before others do. Recall a time in your life when you were able to use your thinking abilities to come up with a creative solution to a problem, and share your creative solution with your classmates. Where do you think your creative idea came from?
After evaluating the alternatives in terms of their anticipated effectiveness, the next step is to evaluate them in terms of their desirability, based on your needs, interests, and value system. After completing these two separate evaluations, select the alternative(s) that seem most appropriate. Review the alternatives you identified in the sample problem and then rank or rate them according to their potential effectiveness and desirability.
- 2. Combine alternatives. After reviewing and evaluating the alternatives, you may develop a new alternative that combines the best qualities of several options while avoiding their disadvantages. In the sample problem, you might combine attending college part-time during the academic year with attending school during the summer session so that progress toward your degree won’t be impeded. Examine the alternatives you identified and develop a new option that combines their best elements.
- 3. Try out each alternative in your imagination. Focus on each alternative and try to imagine, as concretely as possible, what it would be like if you actually selected it. Visualize what impact your choice would have on your problem and what the implications would be for your life as a whole. By trying out the alternative in your imagination, you can sometimes avoid unpleasant results or unexpected consequences. As a variation of this strategy, you can sometimes test alternatives on a very limited basis in a practice situation. For example, if you are trying to overcome your fear of speaking in groups, you can practice various speaking techniques with your friends or family until you find an approach you are comfortable with.
After trying out these strategies on the sample problem, select the alternative(s) you think would be most effective and desirable.
Step 4B: What Steps Can I Take to Act on the Alternative(s) Chosen? Once you have decided on the correct alternative(s) to pursue, your next move is to take action by planning specific steps. In the sample problem, for example, imagine that one of the alternatives you have selected is “Find additional sources of income that will enable me to work part-time and go to school full-time.” The specific steps you could take might include the following:
- 1. Contact the financial aid office at the school to see what other forms of financial aid are available and what you have to do to apply for them.
- 2. Contact some of the local banks to see what sorts of student loans are available.
- 3. Look for a higher-paying job so that you can earn more money without working additional hours.
- 4. Discuss the problem with students in similar circumstances in order to generate new ideas.
Identify the steps you would have to take in pursuing the alternative(s) you identified on pages 120–122.
Once you know what actions you have to take, you need to commit yourself to taking the necessary steps. This is where many people stumble in the problem-solving process, paralyzed by inertia or fear. Sometimes, to overcome these blocks and inhibitions, you need to reexamine your original acceptance of the problem, perhaps making use of some of the strategies you explored on pages 112–113. Once you get started, the rewards of actively attacking your problem are often enough incentive to keep you focused and motivated.
STEP 5: HOW WELL IS THE SOLUTION WORKING?
Any analysis of a problem situation, no matter how careful and systematic, is ultimately limited. You simply cannot anticipate or predict everything that is going to happen in the future. As a result, every decision you make is provisional, in the sense that your ongoing experience will inform you if your decisions are working out or if they need to be changed and modified. As you saw in Chapter 2, this is precisely the attitude of the critical thinker—someone who is receptive to new ideas and experiences and flexible enough to change or modify beliefs based on new information. Critical thinking is not a compulsion to find the “right” answer or make the “correct” decision; it is an ongoing process of exploration and discovery.
Step 5A: What Is My Evaluation? In many cases the relative effectiveness of your efforts will be apparent. In other cases it will be helpful to pursue a more systematic evaluation.
- 1. Compare the results with the goals. Compare the anticipated results of the alternative(s) you selected. To what extent will your choice(s) meet your goals? Are there goals that are not likely to be met by your alternative(s)? Which ones? Could they be addressed by other alternatives? Asking these and other questions will help you clarify the success of your efforts and provide a foundation for future decisions.
- 2. Get other perspectives. As you have seen throughout the problem-solving process, getting the opinions of others is a productive strategy at almost every stage, and this is certainly true for evaluation. It is not always easy to receive the evaluations of others, but maintaining open-mindedness toward outside opinions will stimulate and guide you to produce your best efforts. To receive specific, practical feedback from others, ask specific, practical questions that will elicit this information. General questions (“What do you think of this?”) typically result in overly general, unhelpful responses (“It sounds okay to me”). Be focused in soliciting feedback, and remember: You do have the right to ask people to be constructive in their comments, providing suggestions for improvement rather than flatly expressing what they think is wrong.
Step 5B: What Adjustments Are Necessary? As a result of your review, you may discover that the alternative you selected is not feasible or is not leading to satisfactory results. At other times you may find that the alternative you selected is working out fairly well but still requires some adjustments as you continue to work toward your desired outcomes. In fact, this is a typical situation. Even when things initially appear to be working reasonably well, an active thinker continues to ask questions such as “What might I have overlooked?” and “How could I have done this differently?” Of course, asking—and trying to answer—questions like these is even more essential if solutions are hard to come by (as they usually are in real-world problems) and if you are to retain the flexibility and optimism you will need to tackle a new option.
Thinking Activity 3.2