Future Problem Solving

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Reflection

Introduction

Future Problem Solving is a strategy for helping students develop skills for analysing a problem. Working through a six step process can help them decide – from a futures perspective – what should be done about a problem. The six steps are:

  • Identifying possible causes and effects of a problem
  • Identifying the underlying problem
  • Brainstorming potential solutions
  • Developing criteria for evaluating solutions
  • Evaluating all solutions to determine the best one
  • Developing an action plan

As well as developing problem solving skills, this teaching strategy also helps students to develop an interest in the future and improve their research, group work and communication skills.

The problem chosen to illustrate the Future Problem Solving strategy in this module is waste management, a problem that is becoming increasingly serious because the amount of waste is growing all around the world. Solutions to the problems of both solid and chemical waste are considered in this module.

Objectives

  • To appreciate the importance of integrating a futures perspective
  • To develop expertise in using Future Problem Solving as a teaching strategy
  • To plan ways of using the Future Problem Solving strategy when teaching other topics

Activities

  1. Fantasy voyage
  2. Waste problems
  3. Future Problem Solving
  4. Reflection

References

_____ (1997) Trash – Heaps of Trouble, New Internationalist, No. 295.

_____ (1999) Hazardous Waste, Our Planet, No. 104.

Barrett,T., MacLabhrainn, I. and Fallon, H. (eds) (2005) Handbook of Enquiry and Problem-based Learning. Irish Case Studies and International Perspectives, AISHE, Released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

Boswell, R. (1998) Learning Theme Packs, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.

Crabb, A. (1998) The Coach’s Guide to Future Problem Solvers Program, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.

Crabb, A. (n.d.) Problem Solving Across the Curriculum, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.

Crabb, A. (n.d.) Student Guide Workbook, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.

Future Problem Solving Program International

Credits

This module was written for UNESCO by Bernard Cox, Margaret Calder, John Fien and Clayton White from materials and activities by Tony Hepworth in Teaching for a Sustainable World (UNESCO – UNEP International Environmental Education Programme).

Fantasy voyage

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

This activity involves a fantasy voyage to a planet in another galaxy – in our imaginations.

You can take the journey in one of two ways. Click on the version you prefer:

Q1: Record your feelings and reactions as you read about the distant planet.

  • What are your overall feelings about the distant planet?
  • What do you like about the planet? Why?
  • What do you dislike most? Why?
  • What do you think about the way the people on the distant planet use their resources? Why?
  • What do you think is the future for the people of this planet? Why?

The descriptions in the Fantasy Voyage are examples of reality from our own times and our own planet.

Read more about solid waste and hazardous waste to develop an understanding of the challenge of waste management which is used as the example in this module for developing skills in using Future Problem Solving strategies in teaching.

Any judgements we make about waste management (or other issues) should be based on a combination of our values (that is, the things we cherish) and our knowledge, which we have tested as far as possible to be sure that it is true.

Q2: We made judgements about the people on the distant planet.

  • Are the same judgements true about the people on Earth early in the 21st century?
  • What evidence do you have for making this judgement?
  • Why is it sometimes hard to find and verify this evidence?

Review a sample answer to this question.

Waste problems

This part of the module provides some basic knowledge for understanding problems associated with waste before examining the technique of Future Problem Solving.

The fantasy voyage was an introduction to the problems of chemical waste, but the ‘throwaway society’ many of us live in brings with it waste problems of another nature. Sometimes industry lacks responsible strategies for dealing with the waste by-products of their manufacturing processes. Much waste also comes from the transport and package of the products sold. Much also comes from our own homes and schools.

The volume of garbage, or solid waste, that in some societies is collected from outside the front doors of our homes, offices and factories once or twice a week, is evidence of how much many of us throw away. However, many towns and cities lack regular waste collection services and their garbage builds up on footpaths and vacant land, especially along river banks.

In the affluent North, the amount of waste generated is a reflection of a ‘throwaway’ culture. For example, the throwaway list in the USA each year includes:

  • 52,000,000,000 cans
  • 8,000,000 TV sets
  • 30,000,000,000 bottles and jars
  • 7,000,000 cars
  • 4,000,000 tonnes of plastic
  • 30,000,000 tonnes of paper.

The rapid increase in the use of materials as nations industrialise is accompanied by a rapid increase in waste. In addition to the growing quantity of waste there are many grave concerns about its ‘quality’.

Modern consumer products contain toxic substances that create problems of disposal. Old car batteries contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Household cleaners, solvents and paints, and the pesticides and herbicides that we use on our gardens, also often contain hazardous chemicals.

Over the last 20 years many nations have come to realise that the traditional reliance on landfill as a method of disposal can create its own set of problems. In the first place, landfills take up space that in most cities of the world is very valuable. Secondly, landfills can eventually ‘leak’ – releasing a toxic mix of rainwater and decomposing waste into the soil and groundwater.

Future Problem Solving

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Future Problem Solving is an exciting and practical strategy for helping students develop skills for analysing a problem. It is based on a sequence of five steps that help them decide – from a futures perspective – what should be done about a problem.

In developing problem solving skills, this teaching strategy also helps students to develop an interest in the future and improve their research, group work and communication skills.

For an overview and a guide to an extensive range of support sources visit the Future Problem Solving Programme.

This activity models how the Future Problem Solving strategy can be applied to the waste management problems in a fictional city called Bergana.

Read background information on the problem of waste management in Bergana.

Statement of the Problem

A very important part of the Future Problem Solving strategy is developing a clear, but interesting and challenging, statement of a problem. This helps students learn to focus on solutions that address underlying causes – rather than just the symptoms of the problem.

In a good problem statement, the problem is set in the near future. It is established by examining the causes and effects that are interacting to create a current problem, and then thinking forward approximately 10 years. The problem is then either ‘out of hand’ or getting that way, and the students are asked to plan a series of steps that will rectify the problem – and that probably should have been set in train 10 or so years back – in the present time.

Read a statement of the problem in Bergana.

Q3: Explain why this is a good statement of the problem.

Review a list of reasons why this is a good statement of the problem.

A Six Step Process for Future Problem Solving

Once the teacher has prepared a clear statement of the problem and presented it to students in an interesting way (e.g. newspaper cuttings, a story, a video, a role play, etc.), students follow a six step process for Future Problem Solving.

  1. Identifying possible causes and effects
  2. Identifying the underlying problem
  3. Brainstorming potential solutions to the underlying problem
  4. Developing criteria to evaluate solutions
  5. Evaluating all solutions to determine the best one
  6. Developing an action plan for the best solution

Source: Adapted from Crabbe, A. (1985) The Coach’s Guide to Future Problem Solvers Program, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.

Future Problem Solving for Bergana

Q4: Identifying possible causes and effects

Now that we understand the statement of the problem in Bergana, it is time to consider the many problems related to it. Start by brainstorming (on a sheet of paper) as many factors as you can think of that may have caused the situation or may have resulted from it. Choose the ten you think most important.

Q5: Identifying the underlying problem

  • Study your list of ten factors (Question 4) and identify the main underlying problem.
  • Explain what you want to do about the problem.
  • Explain why it should be done.

Use the headings in your learning journal to guide your answers.

Q6: Brainstorming potential solutions to the underlying problem
Brainstorm – on a sheet of paper, again – as many solutions as you can. Choose the ten most promising solutions and write each solution so that it indicates:

  • Who will undertake what action?
  • How will it be done?
  • Why will this solve the problem?

Q7: List three criteria that a very good solution to the problem ought to meet.

Q8: Evaluating all solutions to determine the best one
Using the ten possible solutions from Question 6, identify what you think will be the very best solution to the underlying problem. It might link several ideas from your ten.

Q9: Developing an action plan for the best solution
Outline the stages you will need to follow to implement this solution. Then note the possible consequences of implementing each step. It is best not to identify more than five stages.

Reflection

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Evaluating Your Problem Solving

The solution you have suggested should be both desirable and practicable. It is desirable if it eases or removes the problem without creating other more serious problems. It is practicable if it can possibly be implemented in the Bergana situation; that is, in terms of social effects, cost, labour, machinery and technology.

Q10: Describe your solution in terms of its desirability and practicability.

Q11: List the six steps of future problem solving you followed in the Bergana case study.

Q12: Describe how you could use the six steps of future problem solving and the Bergana case study with a class you teach.

Q13: Identify another problem related to a topic in a syllabus you teach, and develop a plan for teaching it using the future problem solving strategy.