Jul 17, 2017

The science and evolution of learning from problems

Learning from problems.

Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.

Brown, P., Roediger III, H., McDaniel, M., Make it stick; The science of successful learning., 2014

The problem comes first in problem-based learning.

Learning from problems is a condition of human existence. In our attempts to solve the many problems we face every day, learning occurs. In looking for offices in an unfamiliar building, or addresses in an unfamiliar town, we eventually find our way. In filling out income tax statements, learning occurs, just as in trying to find out why the car won’t start. Although we may not be consciously aware, these problem situations are all learning experiences that are providing us with information and knowledge that we can apply to future problems. The more opportunity we have to use this information in our day-to-day activities, the more ingrained and unforgettable it becomes. We may recall occasions when we have provided a friend or colleague with very helpful and even sophisticated information about a problem he is attempting to solve. Although that information may seem to have just “popped” into our mind as our friend attempted to solve his problem, a little reflection will reveal that we acquired it from our own experience with a similar problem. No doubt, problem-based learning is the basic human learning process that allowed primitive man to survive in his environment. Facts related to us by others or information we have read ourselves rarely seem to have the tenacity of the information we have gained from our own daily confrontation with problems. It would be safe to say that the great wealth of information we possess in our memory banks has remained there as a consequence of having worked with problems we have been faced with insuch life situations as school, work, social situations, and our hobbies. The learning that results from the process of working towards the understanding of a resolution of a problem. The problem is encountered first in the learning process!

There is nothing new about the use of problem solving as a method of learning in a variety of educational setting. Unlike what occurs in real-life situations, however, the problem usually is not given to the student first, as a stimulus for active learning. It usually is given to the student after he has been provided with facts or principles, either as an example of the importance of this knowledge or as an exercise in which the student can apply this knowledge.

Barrows, H., and Tamblyn, R., Problem-based Learning: An Approach to Medical Education., 1980

Problems in science and evolution.

I mentioned at the outset that, as the Greek philosophers already saw, science starts from problems, from amazement about something that may be quite ordinary in itself but becomes a problem or a source of amazement for scientific thinkers. My thesis is that each new development in science can be understood only in this way, that its starting point is a problem or a problem situation (which means the appearance of a problem in a certain state of our accumulated knowledge).

This point is extremely important. The old theory of science taught, and still teaches, that the starting point for science is our sense perception or sensory observation. This sounds at first thoroughly reasonable and persuasive, but is fundamentally wrong. One can easily show this by stating the thesis: without a problem, no observation. If i asked you: ‘Please, observe!’, the linguistic usage would require you to answer by asking me: ‘Yes, but what? What am I supposed to observe?’ in other words, you ask me to set you a problem that can be solved through your observation; and if I do not give you a problem but only an object, that is already something but it is by no means enough.[...]

Why did the old theory wrongly think that in science we start from sense perceptions or observations, and not from problems?

In this respect, the old theory of science was dependent upon the commonsense conception of knowledge. This tells us that our knowledge of the external world is entirely derived from our sense impressions.

I generally have a lot of respect for common sense. I even think that, if we are just a little critical, common sense is the most valuable and reliable counsellor in every possible problem situations. But it is not always reliable. And in matters of scientific or epistemological theory, it is extremely important to have a really critical attitude to it.

It is obviously true that our sense organs inform us about the world around us and that they are indispensable for that purpose. But from this we cannot conclude that our knowledge begins with the sense perception. On the contrary: our sense, from the point of view of evolutionary theory, are tools that have been formed to solve certain biological problems. [...] our sense organs are the outcome of a series of problems and attempted solutions, just as our microscopes or binocular are. And this shows that, biologically speaking, the problem comes before the observation or sense perception: observations or sense perceptions are important aids to our attempted solutions and play the main in role in their elimination. My three-stage model is thus applicable in the following way to the logic or methodology of science.

  1. The starting point is always a problem or a problem situation.
  2. Attempted solutions then follow. These always consist of theories, and these theories, being trials, are very often wrong: they are and always will be hypotheses or conjectures.
  3. In science, too, we learn by eliminating our mistakes, by eliminating our false theories.

Our three-stage model,

  1. problem;
  2. attempted solutions;
  3. elimination,

may therefore be applied in describing science. This brings us to our central question:

What is distinctive about human science? [...]

The answer to this question is that the distinctive feature of science is conscious application of the critical method; in Stage 3 of our model, the stage of error elimination, we act in a consciously critical manner.

The critical method alone explains the extraordinarily rapid growth of the scientific form of knowledge, the extraordinary progress of science.

All prescientific knowledge, whether animal or human, is dogmatic; and science begins with the invention of the non-dogmatic, critical method.

At any event, the invention of the critical method presupposes a descriptive human language in which critical arguments can take shape. Possibly it presupposes even writing. For the essence of the critical method is that our attempted solutions, our theories, and our hypotheses, can be formulated and objectively presented in language, so that they become objects of consciously critical investigation.

It is very important to appreciate the huge difference between a thought that is only subjectively or privately thought or held to be true, which is a dispositional psychological structure, and the same thought when formulated in speech (perhaps also in writing) and thus presented for public discussion.


We come here to an important distinction between two meanings of the word knowledge [Wissen] –knowledge in the subjective and in the objective sense. Usually knowledge is thought of as a subjective or mental state. Starting from the verb form ‘I know’, one explains knowing as a certain kind of belief –that is, a kind of belief that rests upon sufficient reasons. This subjective interpretation of the word ‘knowledge’ has had too strong an influence on the old theory of science. In fact, it is completely useless for a theory of science, because scientific knowledge consists of objective propositions formulated in speech, of hypotheses and problems, not of subjective expectations or convictions.

Popper, K., All life is problem solving. 1994

"All life is problem solving."

Karl Popper

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan