If the problem at hand is to drive a nail into a board, you need a hammer. The right tool and it’s a simple matter. Without it, you can’t get the job done. Worse, if you don’t know that you need a hammer, there is just a nail, a board, and increasing frustration.
Problem solving also requires the use of the appropriate tools to make progress. For straightforward problems, the use of tools is often not noticed. It’s when students begin to tackle more complex problems, that it is necessary to explicitly use tools and resources. For some students, it’s a habit that has to be learned.
Tools are personal skills that can be applied to the problem at hand. Examples are mathematics, the scientific method, previous experience, and analytical insight.
Resources are people, materials, and information that can be found and made available for use. Resources often take the form of expertise that can be sought out for a specific need.
The difficult teaching part is to help the students recognize that specific skills or information are needed in order to resolve more complex problems. There is an irresistible temptation to plunge right into the problem or project. It is like trying to drive the nail without a hammer. The students quickly get mired and never really get back to putting full effort into it. The problem solving approach is replaced by a hope that the problem will solve itself.
This is the time for the teacher to take a step back with the student and identify what tool or resource must be applied to the problem. A valuable exploratory question:
“What else do I need to solve this problem?”
This question interrupts the drive to jump into the trying to work out a solution. It introduces the idea that something essential may not be available at the beginning of the problem.
“What else?” is an exploration that ultimately makes the solving the problem possible. However, there is a tendency to provide a general answer to this type of question. The student should be encouraged to get the detail needed so that an action can actually be taken.
Referring to the initial example with the board and nail: An answer of “something to hit the nail with” is moving in the right direction to work on the problem, but it is not quite enough. “Hammer” increases the detail to a level in which the task can get done.
The question also reinforces the idea that additional tools may be required for complex problems and that it is part of the job to identify and use it. Then, appropriately equipped, the student can go back to the problem as it was stated.
Finally, reinforce the use of tools/resources and emphasize that is the general method to keep in mind for future problems.
A related article is Teaching Problem Solving to Students–The Cycle of Confusion/Resourcefulness/Confidence.