Not Just Problem Solving But Problem Identification

One of things that I see students struggle with the most in doing research is question and topic identification. A big portion of the time I spend helping students with their research is spent helping them identify and define what their question is and what problem they want to address. I use techniques like mind-mapping to help students break apart their problem and start asking the right questions. Traditionally the work of librarians has been more focused on problem-solving. “Where do I look for information on human rights?” But increasingly, problem identification is becoming a skill necessary for students to master as they move into a world and economy built on creativity and innovation.

Dan Pink, the author of Drive and most recently To Sell is Human, talks about this importance of problem identification:

“The premium has moved from problem solving to problem finding as a skill,” Pink said. “Right now, especially in the commercial world, if I know exactly what my problem is, I can find the solution to my own problem. I don’t need someone to help me. Where I need help is when I don’t know what my problem is or when I’m wrong about what my problem is. Problem solving is an analytical, deductive kind of skill. The phrase ‘problem finding’ comes out of research on artists. It’s more of a conceptual kind of skill.”

This is a skill that can be hard to learn and especially hard to teach, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. It’s a lot easier to teach how to search a database or how to properly cite, but teaching students how to ask the right questions and identify problems will better prepare them for the world they’re entering.

A real world example of problem discovery comes from the folks at the design firm IDEO. In this this video, the CEO Tom Kelley talks about redesigning a toothbrush for children. Based on observation and asking the right questions they are able to see the problem in a new light and design a brush that not only tops sales but fits children perfectly. By finding the right problems and asking the right questions the solutions that follow are going be exponentially better.

This skill of asking the right questions and identifying the right problems to solve is something librarians should definitely be teaching our students. It can be done both in the classroom and at the reference desk. What are ways that you teach this skill?

Andy Burkhardt

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