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Idea Seeds #15 – Problem Solving - Analysis & Synthesis

Updated on February 3, 2017

Science Can Be Understood by Everyone

“Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.” (Albert Einstein)

It's Up to Individuals to "Get on the Road to Wisdom"

Nobel Prize winner, Richard Feynman, who you were introduced to in previous articles, certainly believed this and I know of many others who do so too. So why is it that more effort isn’t being put into using more comprehensible language in our schools and universities? The dismal examination results in general, but in particular mathematics and science, being reported in The United States, The United Kingdom, France, and back home in South Africa, is surely sufficient proof that we have a real and urgent problem to solve. Sadly it looks like it’s going to take years as it is a ‘divergent problem’ with clashing educational and political ideologies that have to be resolved. Right now this means that it’s up to individuals to find out what they can do to help themselves ‘get educated’ or better still, ‘get on the road to wisdom’.


A Real life Problem

What would you do if you were presented with the following task: Imagine that you work for an engineering company that gives one bursary each year to a suitable applicant to study engineering at a university. Two applicants have applied and you see that they have both written the same regular South African Matriculation Examinations and have each done all their subjects at Higher Grade. Applicant X has achieved distinctions in English and History and C’s for Mathematics and Science. Applicant Y has achieved C’s for English and History and distinctions in Mathematics and Science. If this is the only information that you are given to base your decision on, who would you recommend for the bursary. Please decide now who you would give the bursary to and, importantly, the reasons for your choice before reading any further?


Analyze and Synthesize

If all I have to compare X and Y on are their results then, in my view, Applicant X with A’s in English and History is the better ‘educated’ of the two at this stage in their development. I consider English and History to be far more important in a person’s ‘World View’ than Mathematics and Science. The latter are both, at matriculation level in South Africa, just swot subjects. You either know the method or the facts or the process to get to the answer or you don’t. If you do, then an A is not difficult to achieve. Creative skills are not needed. On the other hand for English and History, you have to be able to ‘analyze each question to establish exactly what it is the examiner is asking for and then to ‘synthesize an answer in a creative way from what you know and have learnt that covers everything asked for in the question before being considered for an A. A’s are not easy to get in these subjects; they have to be earned and provide the only real proof, from matriculation results, that the person has the ability to ‘analyze’ and ‘synthesize’. The latter is a skill that is not easily taught and essential, as far as I am concerned, for getting high marks in examinations but more importantly solving the problems of life and making ‘wise’ decisions while doing so. (I have used English in this example but an A in any other home language done at an equivalent level would provide the same proof of the ability to ‘analyze’ and ‘synthesize’. However, there are other very sensitive issues that need to be considered when home language and the language of instruction in tertiary level courses are not the same. I will deal with some of these issues in future articles.


Leaders and Boffins

If we want to find people to educate as engineers and scientists for future ‘leadership’ roles in these fields then it is self evident that matriculants with A’s for all their subjects are the ones we should be aiming to attract. Second prize should go to the people who have proved they have the ability to ‘analyse’ and ‘synthesize’ hence my choosing the matriculant with the A’s for English and History.

Please understand that I am NOT saying that the person with A’s in Mathematics and Science will not make a good engineer or scientist. Many of the good engineers and scientists in the past matriculated with marks exactly like Applicant Y. What I am saying is that we also desperately need ‘educated’ people for ‘leadership’ roles. There will always be a need for the boffins in mathematics and science, in particular in the ‘domains’ of research and development.

As I have already said, I believe matriculants with A’s for English and History have proved to me they are better ‘educated’ at this stage in their development than those that don’t have A’s no matter what their symbols were in other subjects. I also believe that people can only claim to be properly ‘educated’ if they have acquired ‘wisdom’. Remember from previous articles, wise people have extensive factual and theoretical knowledge, have made significant progress in completing the ‘big picture jigsaw puzzle’ of the world around them, ‘can be relied upon to make sound judgments and know why, when and how to get things done’.

Think about the ‘idea seeds’ shown above in ‘italics’, in particular ‘analysis’ and ‘synthesis’. It is important that you establish for yourself what you understand them to mean. Make slips for your filing system as outlined in previous articles and then try and think of examples where you have actually ‘analysed’ a problem and then ‘synthesized’ a good solution that you could tell, say, a potential employer during an interview to demonstrate that you have the ability to do so.

A bit of lighthearted banter to end on.

Hobbs: “I think you underrate your Dad’s knowledge. He’s an OK guy with a lot of common-sense experience. Only yesterday he asked an interesting question he had read about in a book that explains all sorts of things simply. He is going to read it to you when he finishes it because he thinks your lively creative imagination has the potential to help make you a good inventor some day.

Hobbs continues: However, when he was trying to read a story to you the other day he realized how difficult the task was going to be to stay within the bounds of your requirements.”

Calvin:What was the question?”

Hobbs:He asked me if I thought he could show me something that no one else in the world has ever seen.”

Calvin: “I can’t think of anything that stupid-old-you or Dad can show me that no one else in the world has ever seen. It’s not possible.”

Hobbs: Well, take one of these unshelled peanuts your Mom gave us to snack on. Break open the shell, or as the author of the book says, undress it and look at the peanuts inside.”

Calvin: “OK there are four peanuts inside, so what!”

Hobbs: Think about it; you are the first person in the world to have seen those four peanuts. Millions of people have seen peanuts but so far those four peanuts have only ever been seen by you and now me of course. Do you know, archaeologists say that people started growing and eating them more than 7500 years ago. The author also said ‘undressing’ things to see what’s in them, how they are held together and establishing how and why they work is called ‘analysis’. Explaining their purpose and how and where they fit into the world is called ‘synthesis’. These are skills high on the list of essential skills everyone should master. To be good at it you have to become an ‘astute observer’, sort of like a detective.”

Calvin: “I can’t wait to get to school to do the peanut thing on Miss Wormwood.”


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