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Problem solving in teacher education February 12, 2013

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Dr Chwee Beng Lee


Teachers, do you have to take academic tests on a daily basis? How many of you write essays about the national curriculum and learning theories at your workplace? Are you expected to pass a particular test in order to keep your job?

In actual fact, no teacher is paid to complete examinations. On the other hand, teachers are expected to answer students’ queries on domain-specific questions, are challenged to solve classroom management problems, tasked to re-design lesson plans and curricula, and are required to communicate with various stakeholders. A plethora of studies has documented the increasing demands on beginning teachers as they face greater social expectations, the need to adapt to changes in curricula and pedagogies, and the pressure to develop technological competence and deal with greater diversity among students (Maidtre & Pare, 2010). Despite this reality, teacher education programs continue to place strong emphasis on examinations and essay writing that have little connection to teachers’ everyday experiences.

Problem solving as the most important cognitive process in our everyday life should be given great emphasis in education, especially in teacher education. If teachers do not possess the capacity to solve everyday problems, how can we assume that they are able to effectively and efficiently guide our school children to become problem solvers? Can teachers help students to transfer textbook knowledge into everyday problem solving?

The kinds of problems pre-service teachers face during their professional experience are mostly ill-structured problems that they encounter in their everyday work and are thus highly emergent, complex and interdisciplinary in nature (Jonassen, 2011). Dealing with such problems requires cognitive skills that may be relatively different from those that are required to solve well-structured problems (e.g. solving a mathematics problem versus solving a disciplinary problem). In addition, there are intervening conditions such as epistemological beliefs (Lee, 2010) in the process of solving such problems. There have been studies that have attempted to examine the problems confronted by beginning teachers in classrooms, or by pre-service teachers undertaking their professional experience, which focus on presenting the wide variety of problems (Buitink, 2009; Scherff & Singer, 2012; Zehava & Iliyan, 2008).  However, there has been little effort to further examine the problem solving processes for different kinds of problems. To successfully integrate problem solving into teacher education programs, it is vital to first seek to categorize these problems and determine the cognitive skills and conditions needed to effectively solve them. Making a decision to inform parents about their child’s behaviour in the classroom and implementing appropriate teaching strategies require different thought processes and judgment. Necessary scaffoldings must be carefully designed and provided for constructivist learning. To provide pre-service teachers with authentic experience, real-world problems that resemble those that they will likely have to solve in schools could be presented in digital case format and integrated seamlessly across the teacher education curriculum.  At the end of the day, it is most critical to prepare pre-service teachers for the real world challenges and teacher education programs must seek to design meaningful learning experiences that could enable pre-service teachers to apply the skills and knowledge they will learn from the teacher preparation courses in their future teaching.


Buitink, J. (2009). What and how do student teachers learning during school-based teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education ,25, 118-127.

Jonassen, D. H. (2011). Learning to solve problems: A handbook for designing problem solving learning environments. NY: Routledge.

Lee, C. B. (2010). The interactions between problem solving and conceptual change: System dynamic modelling as a platform for learning. Computers and Education. 55(3), 1145-1158.

Scherff, L., & Singer, N. R. (2012). The preservice teachers are watching: Framing and reframing the field experience. Teaching and Teacher Education, 28, 262-272.

Zehava, T., & Iliyan, S. (2008). The problems of the beginning teachers in the Arab schools in Israel. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24, 1041-1056.

Dr Chwee Beng Lee is a lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney


1. Robert Tillsley - February 13, 2013

Depending on the preservice teacher’s background, they may already have developed a range of problems solving approaches that can be readily turned towards the classroom. Mature age students may come with life/work experience that has built this. A younger teacher may have hobbies, community service or other experience that offers similar skill sets. So you may have two sets of preservice teachers. Those who are equipped with skills that need some guidance on how they are channelled in a school environment and those who need to build such skills from the ground up.
As you point out, many classroom problems are unstructured, yet university education is replete with highly structured work. Educational moments that I think contribute to good problem solving skills are often encountered outside formal schooling.
I’m struggling to think of problem solving skills as something to be formally studied over a limited period of time. Digital resources may model approaches to problem solving, however I do wonder how they would be integrated into the students’ thinking. It is most likely a limit of my imagination, but I suspect that digital resources, like videos, question banks, mind mapping software etc. would hone existing skills for quicker solution development rather than building skills missing from a tertiary level student.
I see problem solving skills as relying on critical thinking skills, personal experience in managing situations with limited resources and comfort in taking a creative approach- accepting the risk of failure.
Can this be incorporated in a teaching qualification? For it to be anything beyond a superficial ticking of a box, the entire structure of the course would need to support problem solving skills, or as you say ‘…seamlessly across the teacher education curriculum’. Otherwise you would waste the time of those with existing skills. Those without them would just have another type of assessment targets to hit, not a skill set that is added to their mental toolbox.
Given that the teacher education program at UWS mostly clings to traditional university formats, is there any way to believe this could be done in a practical context? Perhaps all lectures could be pre recorded, freeing up financial resources for extra tutorials for students who need additional scaffolding and opportunity to develop problem solving skills? Or even for developing of extra curricular opportunities for preservice teachers to be placed in environments that will challenge them- classroom without borders on steroids?
If it isn’t possible to build across the course, should having effective problem solving skills be a prerequisite? A pre-entry assessment to a teaching course?

2. lee whitfort - February 19, 2013

Problem solving is inherent in all aspects of life and should not be seen as a separate entity Students tend to compartmentalize lessons so to avoid PS being seen as one topic in their education In teaching PS techniques should be an underlying aspect of lessons not an end in itself.

3. Manoj Praveen G. - June 23, 2013

Where can I find any literature on problem solving abilities in teacher education?

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