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Interview with David H. Jonassen

A visit with David Jonassen, Distinguished Professor of Education

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: problem solving psychology education

Professor David Jonassen humbly sidesteps the grander importance of his research, yet his work would appear to have very serious and broad-reaching implications for educational systems and seems to call out for educational reform. As a professor in the area of educational psychology, Jonassen’s past research has focused on designing constructivist learning environments, cognitive tools for learning (Mindtools), cognitive modeling/task analysis, and systems dynamics/modeling. Most recently, his attention has moved toward issues of problem-solving. To this end, he has begun working in the context of engineering education for obvious reasons—because engineering students are specifically trained (and will be eventually hired) to solve problems. The types of problems engineers encounter on the job, like those people encounter in everyday life, are relatively “ill-structured” ones—that is, they don’t necessarily have a correct solution, a well-defined method for finding a solution, or even well-established criteria for what determines a successful solution.

In his study of engineers in the workplace—where one would expect to find professionals engaged in solving design problems—Jonassen found that most of the problems encountered by engineers are rendered ill-structured by factors that have little to do with engineering per se, but rather with regulatory, social, or monetary constraints, all of which make the problems (and their solutions) much more complex. Most university students are trained mainly to solve “well-structured” problems. For example, students may be faced with a multiple-choice exam or a story exercise where they must find “the” solution. Yet in the realm of “the real world”—where workplace, familial, financial, and social problems are routinely encountered—people are faced with the kinds of complex problems that are anything but well-structured and that often do not have a single “correct” solution. Unfortunately, traditional university education rarely trains students to think in ways that prepare them to deal more effectively with this kinds of complexity.

Jonassen argues that there are more effective ways to educate students to be better problem-solvers “in the wild,” as described by Edwin Hutchins. In pursuit of this goal, he is developing support systems and methods for engaging students in how to solve more complex, ill-structured, everyday, and workplace kinds of challenges by embedding those sorts of problems in the classroom itself. Instead of just telling students about a particular field, educational systems need to begin to prepare students how to actually do the work in those fields. While his initial model has direct impact on the field of engineering, it has obvious implications for education in other fields as well. If implemented, his work could, in fact, transform the face of education itself.