Problem solving in chemistry at secondary school
In this project, the nature of open-ended problem solving is explored and working descriptions presented. In order to study the ways by which secondary pupils (ages 14-17) seek to solve open-ended problems in chemistry, a set of eighteen problems was devised. These were used with several hundred school pupils and data was gathered to examine the nature of difficulties experienced in facing such problems. The set of problems (described as units) was designed to be difficult and pupils worked in groups of three to seek solutions. They were encouraged to discuss the problem as they tried to solve it and to make notes of their attempts at solution. After each problem, they completed an assessment individually where they were asked to reflect on the process through which they had moved as they tried to solve the problem. Tape recordings of the discussions of many groups of pupils were made and other observations were made to build up a more complete picture. The information obtained was analysed and summarised to seek to gain insights into the process of problem solving where the problems were open-ended, unfamiliar and difficult. The main area of interest was to explore the way long term memory affected problem solving in such situations. Pupils enjoyed the units and liked working in groups. They tended to perceive the problems as difficult because they were unfamiliar and they felt they did not have enough knowledge. In fact, all the units were based specifically on the syllabus content and, therefore, pupils should have had enough knowledge. Nonetheless, they felt a knowledge inadequacy. It is possible that this observation might be linked to the lack of long term memory connections between islands of knowledge: while they should have known the key facts, perhaps the way they were required to link them to solve the problem was itself a major source of difficulty.