Monday, October 24, 2011

Real World vs. Simple Problem Solving

In the Neural Basis of Thinking, Vinod Goel reflects on the puzzle of a brain-injured architect. Although after his injury (R prefrontal cortex), he was still found to have a superior IQ (128 on the WAIS-R), he found himself unable to resume his work as an architect and live independently in the world.

What is it that common psychometric (and many school tests) miss, and how are they different from surviving and thriving in the real world?

Goel found that although the architect could manage the well structured problems of IQ tests well, he was unprepared for a more "real world task" that required him to design a new lab space. When his performance was matched to an architect of similar training and age,  he had trouble transitioning from the problem scoping to problem planning stage, he started planning too late in the exercise,  and he had trouble tying together earlier bits of information into a coherent plan to solve the task. He never made it to the detail stage.

What Goel suggests is that: "the right PFC (prefrontal cortex) plays a selective but critical role in situations where the problem space (1) is very broad and poorly constrained, (2) contains misleading / conflicting information, or (3) contains insufficient information to determine the conclusion. These are all hallmarks of real-world problems." Many have dismissed the right PFC to almost a supporting role to the left PFC, but in other testing paradigms that would seem closer models of real world problem solving (e.g. requiring hypothesis generation or trial-and-error learning),  the right PFC again leaps to prominence.

Goel goes on to speculate: "As standard neuropsychological test batteries consist only of well-structured problems, while real-world problems have both ill-structured and well-structured components (the former preceding the latter), patients may perform well in the lab, but stumble in the real world.

If this is a genuine double dissociation (and if success in the world consists of primarily dealing with the lack of structure), it should be possible to find individuals exhibiting the reverse pattern; ie being very successful in the world by underperforming in the neuropsychology laboratory...Certainly, there are anecdotal stories of individuals who have amassed great power and wealth but would turn in a mediocre performance on IQ tests..."

The idea seems compelling. A host of adults who struggled in school but thrived in real life come to mind (this is not an uncommon profile for dyslexics, for instance).

If we aren't regularly presenting our students with poorly structured problems or open-ended challenges from the real world, maybe we need to change.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed! But a lot of students don't seem to like these problems...