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The problem with problem-solving - Catherine Lloyd

06 April 2023

There is no doubt that those working in the agricultural sector will need to solve problems. On a large scale, there are the problems of addressing climate change, achieving net zero and conserving the environment. On a day to day basis, livestock, the weather and machinery breakdowns can all cause unforeseen problems that need to be rapidly addressed if operations are to run smoothly.

Undertake an online search for the skills needed to be a farmer and generally problem-solving will appear fairly high on the list. In a list of competencies required to meet the current challenges and create new sustainable approaches to farming ‘interdisciplinary problem solving’ is first (Wals, Mulder and Eernstmann 2013). The Skills Imperative 2035 report (Taylor et al 2022) which reviewed the literature about the essential skills expected to be in demand in the future labour market identified one of the top three as problem solving / decision making.

In light of this, it is worth considering how best to approach the inclusion and development of problem solving within the vocational curriculum. Problem solving is a development of inquiry based learning and takes a student centred approach through experiential learning during completion of authentic tasks. A report on how to teach vocational education (Lucas, Spencer and Claxton 2012) stated that real-world problem-solving is core to any vocational pedagogy but identifies that it can take many forms and requires structured processes for feedback and reflection. The Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning report which focused on adult learning, vocational education and routes to work, identified eight distinctive features of vocational pedagogy, which included the use of practical problem solving (CAVTL 2013). Drill down into subject specific pedagogy and the research on problem solving approaches within individual subject areas is lacking. Is this because problem solving is a generic skill rather than a situated one? Drawing on research from America, Parr and Edwards (2004, 112) identify that the use of problem solving “has long been considered a significant part of the pedagogical foundation on which the educational philosophy of agriculture rests”. They identify that whilst there is debate about its implementation it is acknowledged as a useful pedagogical tool which aligns with a “hands-on/minds-on” approach to learning in authentic contexts.

The findings from my recent Research Further project into teaching agriculture in FE colleges in England have caused me to reflect on problem solving and consider the following aspects. If we are to teach problem solving, can there be an agreed definition of the skills that this requires and that students must therefore acquire and develop? Logically, it would include the ability to tackle unexpected issues as they arise and implement effective solutions, but it is possible that there are nuances and variations specific to different industries. Is it necessary or helpful to break down problem-solving into the individual components which are required for successful performance in a vocational setting to aid in teaching and development. Do these need to be contextualised to different sectors and job roles? If so, who should address these questions?

My research focused on agriculture within land-based colleges. These have commercial farms which operate 365 days per year and provide an authentic environment within which learning can be situated. Many of the tasks that students are therefore able to participate in on college farms are real and not simulated. This raises a further question in regard to the value of real versus simulated tasks in problem solving, and whether it is possible or preferable to elevate one over the other. In this setting rather than having to devise realistic tasks, vocational teachers can make use of the naturally occurring opportunities that arise during day-to-day life on the farm.

One participant in the study described a practical teaching session which involved hanging a gate which was required on the farm; “the gates got to go up, it’s not a simulation, you know, so what’s the best way to do it?” They described an iterative process where the students would be asked to come up with and articulate solutions at each stage of the activity, guided by the teacher to ensure the task was completed successfully. This fits with the processes of feedback and reflection described earlier. David described how if a machine breaks down the students may be tasked with trying to identify the fault and suggesting how to fix it, but it was stressed that communication was essential to ensure that they didn’t make the issue worse or hurt themselves in the process. Another participant, Emma stated “I want them to be able to ask me for help” and she went on to explain that the confidence and ability to ask for assistance was essential. These examples suggest that the ability to communicate effectively is seen as a key component of problem-solving in an agricultural setting.

Soden and Pithers (2001) explain how the quality of an individual’s subject knowledge will influence how they think about problems. This view was evident in the response from Kevin, a participant in the study, when describing their view of problem solving: “having come from a farming background part of my sessions always involve to a certain degree how to get out of a muddle. Good maintenance will stop you getting in a muddle, good knowledge will get you back out of it again”. This focus on knowledge is key as according to Soden and Pithers (2001) a narrow approach which focuses on procedural learning could impede problem-solving ability. This need to develop a deeper understanding was present in the participants descriptions of practice, students learning the practical skills without an understanding of the underpinning knowledge could in the words of one participant “put themselves at risk”.

These findings suggest to me that problem-solving is influenced by the subject area and context in which it is delivered, and therefore there are situated aspects to this skill. The examples given here, appear to represent a form of directed problem solving and the pedagogy is within the setting of parameters, the layers of support and direction provided, and the giving of feedback to assist the students in reaching a solution. The decisions made about these and other aspects appear to be informed by the subject matter, the learning environment and the use of real problems. Whilst this research focused on agriculture, empirical studies exploring the use of problem solving within other vocational areas would provide opportunities to compare and contrast approaches at the level of subject specialist pedagogy. Increasing the research evidence could provide answers to some of the questions raised here and be used to inform approaches to developing problem solving skills in vocational students, identified as essential as they move into the workplace.


CAVTL (Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning). (2013) It’s about work…Excellent adult vocational teaching and learning: the summary report of the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning. Learning and Skills Improvement Service

Lucas, B., Spencer, E. and Claxton, G. (2012) How to teach vocational education: A theory of vocational pedagogy. City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development.

Parr, B. and Edwards, M. C. (2004) Inquiry-based instruction in secondary agricultural education: Problem-solving-An old friend revisited. Journal of Agricultural Education, 45: 106-117.

Soden, R. and Pithers, R. T. (2001) Knowledge matters in vocational problem-solving: a cognitive view. Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 53(2): 205-222.

Taylor, A., Nelson, J., O’Donnell, S., Davies E. and Hillary, J. (2022) The Skills Imperative 2035: what does the literature tell us about essential skills most needed for work? National Foundation for Educational Research.

Wals, A., Mulder, M. and Eernstmann, N. (2013) How to educate in a changing world? Towards competence-based tertiary agricultural education. Available online:

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.