Wanted: A New Generation of Problem Solvers

It has been more than a decade since Marc Prensky popularized the term “digital natives” to describe young people’s inherent connection with digital technologies, and while students may be able to successfully navigate these technologies to accomplish everyday tasks, researchers such as Ugochi Acholonu are exploring the extent to which this theory holds true when it comes to a student’s ability to innovate using technology.   dmlsra-2013-green_2_copy

Acholonu tested this theory by asking a group of community college students, ages 18-20 who had grown up in technology inclusive environments, to complete a set of problems on paper. The young people were able to answer the questions in this context, but when it came time to do the same experiment in a real world setting, many of the students failed to solve the task again. According to Acholonu, there was a significant drop in performance when students had to adapt, manipulate, and repurpose technology to support their own problem solving and learning objectives. Acholonu noted that the students who were successful at solving the task were those who deeply explored their environment by touching and inspecting the technology in front of them. Students need practice dealing with ambiguity, Acholonu said, and specifically, in using technology in situations that are ambiguous.

In the video below, Acholonu talks about the need to develop exploratory programs, where students are forced out of their daily learning routines and inspired to think about solving complex problems in atypical ways. Acholonu, a postdoctoral researcher at DePaul University who received her PhD in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford University, presented her findings at the 2012 DML Summer Research Associate Institute. Below are some of the highlights, but Acholonu’s experiment as a whole stresses how crucial innovative and critical thinking skills have become in helping young people meet the demands of the 21st century.

It was really shocking. People could answer it on paper. People were creative enough and they had the knowledge, but something in the environment was blocking the activation of that knowledge.

Our environment is a great feedback mechanism. If I throw something through the window, OK, that’s going to break the window. The people who didn’t solve the task didn’t touch anything outside the pencil and the paper. They were doing something that they knew would work, but they didn’t explore other alternatives.

Students need practice dealing with ambiguity and dealing with transforming technology and systems of technology into a way of supporting their needs and goals.

My goal is to look at the pedagogy around teaching people to be explorers, beyond just creativity, but in the sense of being smart innovators. You can innovate and innovate and not get anywhere, so what does it mean to do smart innovation, and how do you capitalize on ambiguity in ways that are both small and big?


Ugochi Acholonu – DML Summer Institute 2012 from DML Research Hub on Vimeo

Production credit: Marc Bacarro
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