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No Problem? No Research, Little Learning Big Problem!

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No Problem? No Research, Little Learning Big Problem!
No Problem? No Research, Little Learning ... Big Problem!
Fernando ORNELAS MARQUES
Universidade de Lisboa, 1749-016 Lisboa, Portugal
and
Maria Teresa MARQUES
CCTIC, ESE/IP, 2914-504 Setúbal, Portugal
ABSTRACT
The motivation to carry out this study stemmed from the
generalized perception that nowadays youth lacks the skills for
the 21st century. Especially the high-level competences like
critical thinking, problem solving and autonomy. Several tools
can help to improve these competences (e.g. the SCRATCH
programming language), but, as researchers and educators, we
are mostly concerned with the skill to recognize problems.
What if we do not find problems to solve? What if we do not
even feel the need to find or solve problems? The problem is to
recognize the problem; the next step is to equate the problem;
finally we have to feel the need to solve it. No need? No
invention. Recognizing a problem is probably the biggest
problem of everyday life, because we are permanently faced
with problems (many ill-defined problems), which we need to
identify, equate and solve.
Keywords: Intuition, Curiosity, Problem Recognition,
Creativity, Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Research and
Education
1. RATIONALE
Youngsters seem to be more and more passive
consumers, little autonomous and less motivated intrinsically
for learning at school. The innate curiosity, imagination,
creativity and the need that is the mother of invention all vanish
in most pupils along 11 to 12 years of pre-university school.
Therefore, youngsters do not develop high-level competences
that can make them pro-active, autonomous, critical citizens,
inventors and constructors in the future. In fact, most of our
students even lack basic skills, which are needed to work, for
instance, in a lab. They (male or female) do not know how to
properly use a basic tool like a screwdriver. Even more
worrying is the fact that most of the colleagues in the Geology
department of a Faculty of Sciences have a very poor scientific
production, and for one very simple reason: they cannot find
problems to solve.
2. PREMISES
As basis of argument, let us assume that some very wellknown sayings are true: (i) “He who can no longer pause to
wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are
closed” (A. Einstein); (ii) “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift
and the rational mind is a faithful servant” (A. Einstein); (iii)
“The need is the mother of invention” (old popular saying); (iv)
“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old
problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and
marks real advance in science” (A. Einstein); (v) “The
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SYSTEMICS, CYBERNETICS AND INFORMATICS
important thing is not to stop questioning” and “Imagination is
more important than knowledge” (A. Einstein), who also
recognized that “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal
education”, which seems to still hold.
These famous sayings illustrate the problems we
recognize in Natural Sciences students. The problems are
related to observation, intuition, need, (intrinsic) motivation,
recognition of problems and problem solving. Because one of
us travels regularly to many universities around the world, he
has recognized these problems everywhere.
3. PROBLEMS
3.1. Observation
A basic and fundamental tool in sciences is observation.
However, the present-day school does not teach the students to
observe carefully and in detail, and to describe, in drawing and
writing, with the rigor of science.
Our personal experience in the activities of teaching and
scientific research has taught us that our eyes see what the brain
is educated to see [e.g. 1-4]. This means that we first do a
preliminary observation, then we use critical thinking to analyze
the data, and finally usually come to the conclusion that the
observation is insufficient or even irrelevant. Typically, we
soon realize that we have problems to solve and so we need
more observation and data. But now the brain is aware of what
we need to look for (our eyes see what the brain is educated to
see), which is the relevant data that will help to solve the
problem.
3.2. Attitude
The need is the mother of invention. However, most kids
nowadays have no needs, probably because parents in the socalled “first world countries” give them everything, especially
the superfluous, and not as a reward to anything.
The present-day helping culture is eroding autonomy and
self-reliance [e.g. 5-8]. Nowadays parents make life too easy to
their kids, by removing every obstacle (however small). The
result is that they are not being prepared for real life, which is
full of obstacles at every step. Nowadays parents ignore a
fundamental premise: “Adversity builds character” or “What
does not kill you makes you stronger” (Nietzsche).
3.3. Where Is The Problem?
High-level skills like critical thinking, problem solving
and autonomy are all inherent in Problem-Based Learning
(PBL) [e.g. 9, 10]. PBL can very successfully teach us how to
solve problems; however, PBL by itself does not teach us how
to find/recognize problems. What if we do not find problems to
solve? What if we do not even feel the need to find or solve
VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 3 - YEAR 2012
ISSN: 1690-4524
problems? The problem is to recognize the problem; the next
step is to equate the problem; finally we have to feel the need to
solve it. No need? No invention. Recognizing a problem is
probably the biggest problem of everyday life, because we are
permanently faced with problems (many are ill-defined
problems), which we need to identify, equate and solve (without
recourse to a psychiatrist, who will try to help one recognize the
problems).
Although experimentation and modelling are fundamental
tools in basic Physics and problem recognition, experimentation
at pre-university level is absent in Portugal. The school
textbooks for Natural Sciences are misleading and ineffective,
because all the so-called “experimental activities” (with no
exception) are either physically wrong or no more than poor
laboratory activities.
3.4. Intuition And Motivation
As recognized by A. Einstein, the intuitive mind is a
sacred gift; it is indeed fundamental in science and in the
recognition of problems. Children naturally and unconsciously
develop intuition, which is our background knowledge of the
way things work, gained mostly from everyday experience [e.g.
11, 12]. When a child throws a ball vertically in the air, he
intuitively (unconsciously) learns that the ball has some weight,
that he has to spend some energy to throw it high (do some
work), that the ball will slow down on the way up, come to a
stop, and then accelerate downward back to his hand, where he
will feel the impact. Without knowing a thing of Physics or
Mathematics, he was introduced to many important concepts of
Classical Mechanics. He does not know of them formally, but
he knows how they work. So what should be a major objective
of the School? Take this everyday life intuition of how things
work and educate it [e.g. 13, 14]. However, it does exactly the
opposite (“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal
education”, Einstein). Intuition may be wrong (e.g. it is not the
sun that moves everyday from E to W, it is the Earth that rotates
in the opposite sense) and must be corrected in a modern
society. In a primitive society people did not care about
correction or education of the intuition, because their main
objective was the preservation of the species. Only later the
human kind decided that this was not enough and started paying
more attention to the intellect. We now live in an age of
transition from primitive instinct/intuition/physical based
society to a higher-level intellectual society. This time is
dangerous because we are not as intellectually evolved as we
often pretend to be. And this generates too many conflicts in the
present human being, caught in a hybrid stage made of primitive
instincts and higher intellectual development. But,
paradoxically, the present-day school kills the most genuine
high-level innate skills (curiosity, imagination and creativity)
and does not promote the autonomy so necessary in the modern
society and so basic in the primitive societies. An Einstein’s
quote pops to my mind: “Only two things are infinite, the
universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the
former”.
Motivation is probably the biggest challenge: how can we
trigger/develop intrinsic motivation, so critical to transform our
pupils into students?
3.5. Critical Thinking
Most of our pre-university students, and none of our
under or post-graduate students at the university question what
we tell them, or what is written in textbooks or scientific papers.
They do not even question the beautiful rocks we take them to
observe in the field.
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Many of our students, at any level, present, as the result
of a problem, two very different values, one determined
graphically and the other analytically, for exactly the same
angle, without recognizing that one value is obviously wrong.
4. POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
How can we improve students’ observation skills? They
should be taken more regularly outdoors to observe and
describe large-scale and small-scale features. They should be
taught how to collect relevant data according to different
objectives.
How can we improve the students’ ability to recognize
problems? Scientific drawing, writing and experimentation are
excellent ways. When we draw, we become aware of
geometrical problems and what is relevant according to the
objectives; when we write, we usually find that the data is
insufficient or even irrelevant for the proposed objectives; when
we experiment and model, we realize that we have mechanical
problems to solve.
How can we improve students’ problem-solving skills?
What skills do students need in order to solve problems? They
need: logical reasoning; know how to split complex problems
into simpler parts; identify and eliminate bugs; and
concentration and perseverance. When the students use a
programming language like SCRATCH [e.g. 15-19], they
develop all these skills, and they soon find problems that they
immediately have (feel the need) to solve in order to advance
with the project. Moreover, when trying to solve problems, the
student is faced with new concepts that he is really willing to
learn in order to achieve his goals. Projects developed with
programming languages like SCRATCH have the ability to
trigger the need that is the mother of invention, and lead to the
intrinsic motivation that separates pupils from students.
The roles of Science and Mathematics are growing fast in
our society. Mathematics teaches us how to solve problems in a
logical and rational way. If it is important to know how to solve
problems, it is not less important to know how to recognize and
formulate them. However, Mathematics does not teach us how
to find or recognize problems. This is a major role of Science
that urgently needs to be taught to our youngsters (at least).
With experimentation, students learn the most basic and
fundamental practice in Science. Students even learn how to use
basic tools (e.g. hammer, screwdriver, pliers, ...) when they are
faced with the need to build new apparatuses to realize the
experiments. Students even learn how to properly use a modern
basic tool like the computer (usually used by youngsters for
games) when they use programming languages like SCRATCH.
5. CONCLUSIONS
Regarding observation, we should always keep in mind
that the eyes see what the brain is educated to see. Otherwise we
are blind to many relevant details and many problems.
We need to improve the student’s innate intuition and
educate it. This is likely the easiest way to motivate students.
Ultimately Science and Mathematics can help us with
everyday life, because we are permanently faced with problems,
which we need to identify, equate and solve rationally.
We try to teach our students, in 12 years of pre-university
school, the science that took humanity thousands of years to
develop. This is absolute nonsense! The solution could be to
work only a few fundamental physical processes with students,
and use the most basic and fundamental tools – observation,
experimentation and analysis – to understand them.
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