Home Page of Problem Solving Book


Chapter 1: Introduction to Problem Solving

Chapter 2: Overview of Resources in Problem Solving

Chapter 3: Intelligence as Resource

Chapter 4: Tools as Resource

Chapter 5: Accumulated Knowledge as Resource

Chapter 6: Education and Training as Resource

Chapter 7: A Computer System

Chapter 8: Personal Productivity Tools

Chapter 9: Computer Programming

Chapter 10: Final Remarks

References and Resources

Search Engine in Lieu of Index

Introduction to the Book:

Increasing Your Expertise as a Problem Solver--Some Roles of Computers

This book will help you to learn more about your mind and computers, and how they can work together to solve problems. The emphasis is on the types of problems where a computer is a useful aid to solving the problems.

This introductory chapter briefly mentions a number of topics that are covered in the book. Subsequent chapters delve into these topics in more detail. The annotated bibliography, in the References and Resources section at the end lists the resource materials used to prepare this book.

[[Comment added 10/27/01. The copyright for this book is now owned by the author, David Moursund. Over a period of 30 years I have written several books and a number of articles about problem solving. I have taught courses and presented both workshops and talks in this area. This Website version of my 1996 book contains the full text of the original. In a few places I have inserted additional information in double square brackets. However, I wrote this book so that it would have enduring value. So far, I believe it is doing well in standing the test of time.]]

The Human Mind

The human mind is marvelous. It is naturally curious. It is continually learning and adapting to changing situations. It receives and processes data from our multiple senses. It poses and solves a wide range of problems. It can develop a high level of expertise in solving many different kinds of problems.

But, as we all know, the human mind and sensory system have limitations. The senses operate over limited ranges of the spectrum. For example, there are sounds that you cannot hear because of their high frequency. There are frequencies of light that you cannot see.

The memory components of your brain are far from perfect. You may be certain that you know a particular fact--such as the name of a person--but be unable to recall it. You learn some new material, pass a test over it, and then later forget most of what you learned.

The processing components of your brain occasionally make errors. On repetitious tasks, the processing components can become bored, which may contribute to making errors.

The human mind is good at learning overall concepts and ideas. It is not nearly so good at memorizing and recalling small details. Consider the difference between understanding arithmetic concepts and remembering detailed processes of doing arithmetic. When and why you multiply or divide two numbers is a different topic from how you multiply or divide two numbers. It takes most people hundreds of hours of study and practice to achieve a high level of skill in paper and pencil multiplication and division. Even after this considerable learning effort, errors are frequent.

[[Similar comments apply to most learning by rote memorization. The human brain is an analog device, not a digital device. It does well in handling ambiguity and in dealing with imperfect information. However, it often does not do very well when asked to carry out repetitive, detailed, machinelike activities with no errors. Moreover, relative to modern computers, the human mind is quite slow at carrying out such repetitive, machinelike activities.]]

Over recorded history, people have worked to develop aids for the human mind and sensory system. Some of these aids are designed to overcome physical limitations of the mind/body. Examples include eye glasses, hearing aids, telescopes, and microscopes. In this book, we will call these types of aids physical artifacts.

A physical artifact may be designed to help a person achieve normal sight or hearing. But, it also may be designed to provide capabilities that are far beyond what can be achieved without the physical artifacts. For example, telescopes and microscopes extend human visual capabilities.

Other tools people have developed are designed specifically to aid the human mind. Examples include reading, writing, arithmetic, and the abacus. In this book, we will call these cognitive artifacts.

The abacus, navigation tables, star charts, slide rule, calculator, and computer are all cognitive artifacts. Cognitive artifacts aid in the storage, processing, and use of information.

A computerized robot or a computerized piece of science laboratory equipment can be thought of as a combination of physical and cognitive artifacts. Robots and other computerized machinery possess some of the characteristics of each of the two categories of aids to the mind and body.

Physical and cognitive artifacts contribute to the way we think about and attempt to solve problems at work, at school, and at play. You make routine use of many of these artifacts in your everyday life.

The Information Age

Our current era is often called the Information Age. During the past few decades, the buying, processing, and selling of information has been a rapidly growing business. Computers have emerged as a routine aid to storing, processing, and using information.

It is commonly asserted that "knowledge is power." Toffler (1990) analyzes a variety of forms of power, such as agricultural power, manufacturing power, military power, and knowledge as power. Toffler's book focuses on worldwide changes that are based on the growth in knowledge as a commodity that is bought and sold. A person, company, or nation that learns to make effective use of this commodity makes gains in power. That is, they gain in their ability to solve problems and accomplish tasks.

The electronic digital computer is a unifying tool of the Information Age. The computer is an aid to the collection, storage, processing, and utilization of information. The computer is a mind tool. When mind and computer work together, they can solve problems and accomplish tasks that are far beyond what can be accomplished by the mind alone.

The key hardware components of a computer are illustrated in Figure 0.1. This diagram is designed to suggest that a computer system consists of four major types of hardware devices: input, storage, processing, and output. The computer user in this system may be a person; however, it may also be another computer or some other type of machine.

Figure 0.1 Computer hardware and computer user.

A computer system is a combination of hardware and software--physical machinery and computer programs. Each of the hardware components of a computer system is apt to contain/use some computer software. Some of this software is built into the hardware so that it is not readily changed by a person using the computer system. However, a general-purpose computer system is designed to make use of a wide range of software that can be input to the storage units. Such a computer system can be thought of as a machine that can be modified easily to fit the demands of particular types of users and problems.

Cognitive Science

The study of the human mind and human intelligence has a long history. In recent years, the field of cognitive science has developed and blossomed. A cognitive scientist may be: a computer scientist who is developing computer models of how the human mind works; a neural biologist who is working to understand how a collection of neurons can learn and can solve problems; a psychologist who is developing new learning theories; or a linguist working to understand how the human mind processes language.

Progress in cognitive science contributes to the development of new and/or improved cognitive artifacts. For example, perhaps you have heard of the idea of an "advance organizer." Many textbooks begin a new topic with a brief summary of how some of the ideas in this new topic relate to things that you might already know. This summary is designed to help provide a scaffold for the new ideas. Work in cognitive science has contributed to our understanding of how people process new ideas and construct new knowledge based on what they already know.

One cognitive scientist, Howard Gardner (1983), has pioneered a theory of multiple intelligences. He argues that each person has a number of different types of intelligences. For example, people have musical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, and logical-mathematical intelligence. Through appropriate training and experience, these various intelligences can be enhanced--a person can develop his/her potential. Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is one of the central focuses in this book.

David Perkins (1995) gives a careful and detailed presentation on intelligence quotient (IQ). His book explores different definitions of intelligence and different components of intelligence. He presents convincing arguments that IQ can be increased by appropriate education and experience. A number of Perkins' ideas are integrated into this book.

[[In the past few years I have spent quite a bit of time studying cognitive science and brain science. These are fields that are making rapid progress. Click here for more information on these topics.]]

Most people are good at dealing with a wide range of problems that they encounter at work, at play, and in their everyday life. However, they would like to be even better at solving problems and accomplishing tasks. They would like to increase their level of expertise in various areas.


People can get better at whatever they do. A person can get better at a sport, at a hobby or craft, or in an academic field. A person who is really good at something relative to his/her peers is considered an expert. A person's level of expertise can increase through learning and practice.

It is important to distinguish between having some level of expertise and being an expert. The word expertise does not mean any particular level of ability. For anything that you can do, you can imagine a scale of performance that runs from "very low expertise" to "very high expertise." When a person has a high level of expertise in some particular area, we call this person an expert. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) contains an excellent summary of research about expertise.

Figure 0.2 An "expertise" scale.

In our society, a high level of expertise is valued. An expert athlete may win medals and perhaps be a highly paid professional; an expert car mechanic may prosper in the car repair business and be highly respected by customers. Similarly, an expert craftsperson may produce a product that is highly sought after. Expert writers, film producers, and so on, may reach the top of their profession and impact millions of people.

Talk shows on radio and television provide an outlet for many different experts to demonstrate their expertise. There are talk shows on such varied topics as antiques, automobile repair, business investments, medicine, and psychotherapy. Some of these shows encourage people to phone in their questions. The range of knowledge and skills of the experts who host these talk shows, or who are guests on talk shows, is impressive.

Expertise may be in a narrow domain, such as eye surgery, or it may be in a broad domain, such as parenting or teaching. A high level of expertise is based on a combination of natural talent, education and training, access to appropriate tools and information, and years of hard work.

There is a difference between expertise and specialization. A person may concentrate his/her learning efforts in a very narrow area to become a specialist in the area. However, the person may not be very good at performing in that area--at solving the problems that that area addresses. You may think of eye surgery as being a narrow specialization in medicine. However, an eye surgeon could have a low level of expertise in the field.

In any domain, a person's level of expertise may be high or low relative to contemporary standards. The key phrase here is contemporary standards. A person may have a high level of expertise relative to the standards of 100 years ago, but this might constitute a low level of expertise relative to today's standards. In most domains, there is a rising tide of expectations.

In many different fields, computers can contribute to a person's level of expertise. This is because computers are such a powerful aid to solving problems and accomplishing tasks. Computers also can foster the learning experience. This book explores a variety of ways in which appropriate use of computers can help you gain in expertise in domains that interest you.

Intended Audience

This book is intended for people who are interested in:

  • growing in expertise in areas of their choice;
  • learning more about their own thought processes and learning processes, especially as applied to problem solving;
  • learning more about capabilities and limitations of computers as an aid to solving problems, accomplishing tasks, and learning in all domains.

This is a short book, but it contains many profound ideas. You will benefit most from this book if you read it at a leisurely pace, pausing frequently to reflect over the ideas that are being discussed. Relate these ideas to things that you already know and ideas that you have thought about in the past. Think about your own thinking. Such reflective cognition and metacognition is critical to obtain the full benefits of this book. Moreover, according to Perkins (1995), careful reflection is an important contributor to increasing your IQ.

Activities and Self-Assessment

At the conclusion of each chapter of this book is a brief section labeled Activities and Self-Assessment. The basic assumption here is that you are responsible for your own learning. However, having someone raise a few carefully selected questions can help you to reflect on your own learning. Sometimes it is helpful to have some suggestions for possible activities. Here are a few activities and questions based on ideas in this introduction:

  1. What is currently your area of greatest expertise? How does this level of expertise compare to others who you know are really good in this area? What are you doing to increase your expertise in this area? Are computers a useful tool in this area of expertise?
  2. Select a field of interest to you. Interview one or more people who have a high level of expertise in this field. Report on what you learn. Include a discussion of how you can tell that a person has a high level of expertise in this field.
  3. What are your personal thoughts and feelings about IQ and how it relates to gaining and/or having a high level of expertise in various types of fields? You may want to reflect on "natural talent" versus "hard work" in achieving a high level of expertise.
    1. [[Problem posing and question asking are very important aspects of learning a field, and learning to use your new learning. Make up a Self-Assessment Activity that you feel would be a good test of what a person might learn from this Introduction--and answer it.]]

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