Problem Solving in Structured Discovery Cane Travel

By Natalia Marisel Mino



Problem solving is considered one of the most important mental processes in which human beings engage. Humans are problem solvers in essence because they live in a world that constantly challenges them by presenting dynamic and unpredictable situations. Most real-world problems are conceptualized as ill-structured, because they are vaguely defined, possess unclear goals, and have multiple solutions. In the educational arena, students are not exposed to real-world problems and, therefore, they are not well prepared to solve daily-living situations that involve conflicting options (Jonassen, 2007). In the field of orientation and mobility for individuals who are blind, proponents of the Structured Discovery Cane Travel (SDCT) approach are aware of the central role that problem solving plays in facing real-life situations, and the enormous implications that this has in reaching full independence. This manuscript describes theoretical and empirical aspects of problem solving, and conceptualizes it as one of the main pillars of SDCT.


Problem solving, structured discovery cane travel, orientation and mobility


Problem Solving in Structured Discovery Cane Travel

Among high-level cognitive processes, problem solving is considered by theorists to be one of the most important processes that allow individuals to analyze troublesome situations and obtain possible solutions. Jonassen (2007) states that problem solving is a central element for the development of meaningful learning processes because problems offer a purpose for learning, which provides an intention to learn. Intentionality, in turn, is a necessary condition to learn meaningfully.

Real-world problems differ in significant manners, especially in the extent to which they are specified and structured. Theorists have identified two main types of problems: (a) well-structured or well-defined problems (e.g., following a recipe) and (b) ill-structured or ill-defined problems (e.g., social dilemmas, designing a house) (Jonassen, 2007; Leahey & Harris, 1997; Sternberg & Ben-Zeev, 2001). These problems can be analyzed in a continuum of clarity and structure. At one end, well-structured problems are those in which all elements and information about the problem are presented. In addition, in well-structured problems there is a restricted number of rules, the goal is clearly stated, only one correct answer exists, and there is a prescribed process to obtain the solution. At the other end, ill-structured problems are those where the goal is unclear, information about the problem is incomplete, and there are several possible solutions and multiple paths to obtain them (Jonassen, 2007).

Real-world problems are far more ill-structured than well-structured and, consequently, people need to develop strategic ways of thinking to deal with those kinds of problems and to approach feasible and effective solutions. Unfortunately, in education and rehabilitation contexts, students are not trained in problem solving skills to deal with real-life situations. Instead, they are taught to solve well-structured problems and, consequently, they are not able to build the cognitive tools to succeed in solving everyday types of problems, such as the ones found in academic settings or in the workplace (Jonassen, 2007).

Individuals who are blind or visually impaired have to be able to solve problems that they face when traveling through the environment by making use of alternative information when vision is unreliable. The great majority of these problems are ill-structured because, by definition, they emerge from a real-world environment that is in constant and unpredictable change. One of the main factors that facilitates the building of independence for individuals who are blind or visually impaired is training in orientation and mobility (O&M). What follows is a thorough description of the theory of problem solving and social problem solving, research findings on problem solving, and an analysis of the utilization of problem solving within the Structured Discovery Cane Travel approach of the O&M field.

Problem Solving: Theoretical Aspects

Cognitive Processes Involved in Problem Solving

Leahey and Harris (1997) state that the two main components of problem solving are understanding the problem itself (i.e. initial state), and solving the problem. These authors affirm that the understanding component is essential because many of the obstacles to solving a problem are not related to the strategies employed, but to the inappropriate conceptualizations about the content of the problem. Understanding the problem itself requires considering the initial situation where the problem occurs, and defining what the nature of the problem is (i.e., goal state). For example, a person will not know to change his/her study habits if he/she does not have the initial knowledge to indicate that the current strategies are failing. In real life, goal states are not clear and this becomes a part of the complexity of a problem.

Regarding the second main component of a problem situation, (i.e., solving the problem), Leahey and Harris (1997) refer to the construction of a “solution path” that connects the initial state and the goal state. They explain that according to the level of complexity of the problem, it is possible to build one solution path or multiple ones. Theorists (Leahey & Harris, 1997; Sternberg & Ben-Zeev, 2001) agree in that there are two central procedures to approach the solution of a problem: algorithms and heuristics. Algorithms are strategies that lead to a specific solution, whereas heuristics involve falling back on hunches, guesses, and experiences (Leahey & Harris, 1997). Algorithms are useful for solving well-structured problems, while heuristics are central tools to deal with ill-structured, real-world problems for which algorithms do not exist.

Ge (2001) states that well-structured problems differ significantly from ill-structured ones in the problem representation, solution, monitoring, and evaluation processes. In relation to the problem representation, because the goals of well-structured problems are easily defined, the representation is focused on the decomposition of the problem and the classification of the type of problem. On the other hand, because ill-structured problems are characterized by unclear descriptions and goals, the problem may have multiple representations or understandings. Secondly, well-structured problems have single correct solutions and a set of logical operators, thus solving them merely requires applying predetermined rules. In contrast, ill-structured problems do not have a single solution and because many different and contradictory opinions exist, the preferred solution must be represented in the form of an argument supported by sufficient and consistent evidence. Finally, with respect to monitoring and evaluation processes, in well-structured problems, the solver implements the strategy and evaluates the result. If the solution appears to be successful, the process of problem solving concludes. In contrast, monitoring and evaluation in ill-structured problems has to do with justifying the selections made and the solutions chosen. The solver must be able to support the solution selected and defend it against alternative solutions (e.g., there are multiple routes to get to a given location, and one is not necessarily better than another).

Social Problem Solving

D’Zurrila and Nezu (1999) define problem solving as “the self-directed cognitive-behavioral process by which a person attempts to identify or discover effective or adaptive solutions for specific problems encountered in everyday living” (p. 10). According to these authors, problem solving is a conscious activity directed to fulfill particular purposes. Social problem solving is a recognized term that describes cognitive processes in the fields of psychology, especially the branches of clinical, counseling, and health. The incorporation of the word social implies the study of problem solving situations that are present in the social environments (D’Zurrilla & Nezu, 1999). Because solving a problem results in a change in performance capability, social problem solving involves a learning process (Gagné, 1966, as cited in D’Zurrilla & Nezu, 1999). These authors also see social problem solving as both a coping strategy and a self-management method.

D’Zurrila and Nezu (1999) identify three levels of variables involved in the process of social problem solving: the metacognitive level, which consists of a set of orienting responses; the performance level, characterized by a set of problem-solving skills that are necessary for effectiveness in the performance; and the level of basic cognitive abilities, which are intimately related to the ability to learn and implement problem-solving skills.

Orienting responses are cognitive-emotional reactions that a person feels immediately when confronted with a problem (D’Zurrila & Nezu, 1999). These responses include a spectrum of attentional abilities to either recognize or ignore problems. They also include a set of cognitive and emotional schemes consisting of the styles of thinking and feeling about a problem as well as the repertoire of abilities to approach a solution to the problem. Problem solving skills are defined as goal-directed tasks that need to be completed in a specified order to solve a problem successfully (D’Zurrila & Nezu, 1999). These tasks include defining and formulating the problem, generating possible and alternative solutions, making decisions, implementing the solution, and evaluating the results. Finally, basic cognitive abilities are the abilities that affect the learning and performance of problem solving skills (D’Zurrila & Nezu, 1999). This has to do with individuals’ cognitive development. As mentioned previously, problem solving processes require particular cognitive skills to be developed. Different individuals build mental abilities differently, so each person problem-solves at his/her own pace and cognitive level.

Research on Problem Solving

Problem Solving in Education

Research on problem solving has been extensive, and studies have been conducted in the fields of education (Bulu & Pedersen, 2010; Dogru, 2008; Jonassen, 2007; Jurdak, 2006), social relationships (Ocak, 2010), and psychological well-being (D’Zurilla & Chang, 1995; D'Zurilla, Chang, Nottingham, & Faccini, 1998; Londahl, Tverskoy, & D'Zurilla, 2005), among others. In different areas research has indicated the importance of problem solving as a central cognitive tool for individuals to give effective responses to diverse troublesome situations. In the educational area, theorists (Jonassen, 2007; Jurdak, 2006) refer to the deficiencies of teaching strategies, especially employed in school settings, that emphasize the study of well-structured problems and the utilization of algorithms to solve them. This implies the incapability of the students to solve real-world problems, which are, by majority, ill-structured in nature. With this in mind, Jonassen (2007) encourages educators to support the development of meaningful learning, which requires problem solving. Jonassen (2007) states that, because schools are preoccupied with standardized testing, students are unable to solve complex, everyday problems. Many graduates encounter significant obstacles to function in everyday workplace settings because they have never been taught how to learn meaningfully.

In the field of engineering, for example, Jonassen, Stroble and Lee (2006) conducted a study in which they identified and described the attributes of workplace problems faced by engineers. The results showed that these problems are ill-structured and complex, especially because of their conflicting goals, multiple solution methods, unanticipated appearance, distributed knowledge, and the possibility of multiple forms of problem representation. The authors conclude that because engineers are hired and retained for their abilities to problem- solve, engineering students should learn to solve ill-defined problems. They affirm that problems common to the workplace are quite different from those that students solve in the classroom—learning how to solve classroom problems does not prepare engineering students to solve workplace problems. Thus, Jonassen (2007) suggests that the future of education should focus on properly preparing students: how to reason, how to make decisions, and how to solve complex, unpredictable situations. In education, every course, goal, and learning objective should require students to solve ill-defined problems.

Jurdak (2006) analyzed performance differences of high school students in mathematics when problem solving in three different ways: (a) problem solving in real world situations; (b) situated problem solving (real-world problems simulated in the school environment); and (c) problem solving regular school-type problems. Jurdak (2006) concluded that the activity of situated problem solving in the school is quite different from decision-making in the real world due to differences in the activity systems that govern them. Situated problem solving leads to a more meaningful learning of mathematics than regular school problems; however, situated problem solving in the school environment is basically an activity whose outcome consists of a written solution using mathematical tools, thereby restricted by school rules, norms, and expectations. Decision-making in real life, on the other hand, is an activity of greater complexity, in a larger social context, which results in a decision that is constrained only by social rules and available mathematical and non-mathematical tools.

Dogru (2008) comes to similar conclusions after analyzing the benefits of using problem solving methods over traditional methods in solving environmental problems by teacher trainees. Science teaching that is based on problem solving was found to improve the scientific operations skills of the teacher trainees, better their attitudes towards problem solving, and improve their academic performances.

Facilitating Factors of Problem Solving

Studies have also been conducted for the purpose of identifying and analyzing factors that facilitate the process of problem solving. Bulu and Pedersen (2010) studied the effects of scaffolds—specifically, prompts—on learning of scientific content and problem solving. Scaffolds are defined as temporary supports provided by another—more capable—to facilitate students to bridge the gap between their actual abilities and knowledge, and the intended goal (Bulu & Pedersen, 2010). Their effect on learning of scientific knowledge and problem solving was found in both domain-general scaffolds (i.e., those that support students’ development of concepts and strategies that can be used through different domains, such as problem-solving) as well as domain-specific scaffolds (i.e., those that facilitate knowledge integration in a particular domain), and with different levels of support (i.e., continuous and faded). The results suggested that continuous domain-specific condition had a greater effect; however domain-general scaffolds were helpful for students in developing solutions, making justifications, and monitoring learning. These later ones also helped students transfer problem solving skills.

Ge (2001) analyzed the effects of question prompts and peer interactions in scaffolding college students’ problem solving processes on ill-structured tasks. Ge’s work was supported by previous research that has shown that questioning strategies helped students to put attention on their learning process, and to monitor this process through elaboration on the question asked. These studies have demonstrated that students provided with question prompts made significantly greater gains in comprehension. Questioning strategies have been found to promote the development of functions such as focusing attention, stimulating prior knowledge, enhancing comprehension, monitoring thinking and learning processes, and facilitating problem solving processes.

With this knowledge base, Ge (2001) conducted an experimental study to measure the students’ problem solving outcomes on an ill-structured task in four treatment conditions: individuals who received question prompts, individuals who did not receive question prompts, individuals who worked with peers and also received question prompts, and individuals who worked with peers without question prompts. The results showed that the students working with peers who also received question prompts significantly outperformed the other groups—particularly the students without question prompts in all of the four problem solving processes (Ge, 2001). In consequence, the study confirmed not only the findings of previous research that showed the effectiveness of question prompts in facilitating problem solving processes but also the value of peer interactions, when offered the proper scaffolds. These results have been supported later on by Ge and Land (2003).

Complementary to this research, Chen (2007) developed a study to demonstrate the effect of different types of question prompts on students’ knowledge acquisition and ill-structured problem solving outcomes. This author affirms that in order to be efficient problem solvers, it is essential to develop an integrated understanding of previous experience, principles, and applicable knowledge. The findings of this study revealed that knowledge integration prompts (e.g., “What are the differences between different types of reliability and validity? How are different types of reliability and validity similar?”) promoted better knowledge acquisition than did problem solving prompts (“What facts from this case suggest a problem? What do you believe is the primary problem in how the teacher assessed her students? Why is it occurring?). However, in order to solve ill-structured problems, knowledge integration prompts were not enough and, subsequently, a combination of knowledge integration and problem solving prompts was needed to apply knowledge of principles and concepts to real-world problems.

Problem Solving as a Pillar of Structured Discovery Cane Travel

The value of problem solving to promote meaningful learning processes and to deal with ill-structured problems has been widely demonstrated (Bulu & Pedersen, 2010; Chen, 2007; Dogru, 2008; Ge, 2001; Ge & Land, 2003; Jonassen, 2007; Jonassen et al., 2006; Jurdak, 2006). In the field of O&M, proponents of Structured Discovery Cane Travel have utilized problem solving as one of the major cornerstones that support this approach (Altman & Cutter, 2004; Mettler, 2008; Morais et al., 1997). SDCT addresses the problem solving component of O&M, specifically for ill-structured problems, because individuals who are blind or visually impaired are constantly faced with life situations that are dynamic and, many times, unpredictable (e.g., “I am lost and don’t know which way to go,” “noise from construction workers does not allow me to hear traffic to cross the street”). In order to be fully independent, individuals who are blind or visually impaired must be prepared to deal with the environment as it is presented (e.g., sidewalks in poor condition, lack of audible signals and braille signs, irresponsible drivers). This includes solving issues that they may encounter safely and independently while traveling (e.g., unexpected objects blocking the path, car accident, streets/sidewalks closed). During O&M training, these individuals need to be exposed to a variety of problems and they need to learn strategies to be able to generate alternative solutions. Effective problem solving skills are essential for a blind or visually impaired person to be a truly independent traveler (Perla & O'Donnell, 2004). Perla and O'Donnell (2004) affirm that this ability is influenced by different factors that could be either internal (i.e., the conceptual knowledge acquired, the ability to handle stress, or the experiential skill level), or external (i.e., the current environmental conditions).

In cane travel, not all problems are ill-structured. Learning basic cane techniques or identifying cardinal directions, for example, are well-defined problems presented to the individual to whom a restricted range of solutions will be offered. However, the majority of the challenges that individuals who are blind or visually impaired encounter in mobility are ill-structured in nature. Through SDCT, students are taught to recognize the presence of certain patterns in the world, but they are also taught to think “out of the box” and to be prepared to successfully deal with the unpredictable.

Although the benefits of problem solving for learning have been empirically verified in many areas, Perla and O'Donnell (2004) identify a number of potential obstacles to the full development of problem solving in the O&M field. The first obstacle to problem solving is the prevention of problems from occurring. According to the authors, visually impaired people are typically overprotected; consequently, they often have not had the chance to commit mistakes and learn from them. Moreover, the lack of experiencing problems does not allow them to even recognize the presence of a problem. The second obstacle preventing the learning of problem solving that Perla and O’Donnell identify is the focus on right and wrong instruction. If the instructor and the student only value the positive outcomes of lessons and the avoidance of problems, a feeling of fear of the unknown can appear, resulting in less confidence to travel independently. The third obstacle is the conventional emphasis on memorization of facts, such as land marks and directions. This limits the development of thoughts about the environment (i.e., cognitive awareness), resulting in limitations to independent mobility. The fourth obstacle is the lack of time. Parents and teachers often justify conventional route-based instruction based on the lack of time needed to promote the development of problem solving skills. The last obstacle to the teaching of problem-solving noted by Perla and O'Donnell (2004) is the gaps in the prerequisite skills and concepts needed (e.g., problem identification, recognition, and goal setting). They affirm that students who lack age-appropriate skills for problem solving are likely to face additional difficulties in travel.

Structured Discovery Cane Travel then becomes the perfect option in O&M to prevent these obstacles from arising during training. This approach emphasizes the active involvement of the students in experiencing the world—the real world—by allowing them to make mistakes and by allowing problem situations to occur (Altman & Cutter, 2004). Only then, students are able to bring to the conscious level inconsistencies in their thinking that were unconscious before. This promotes the development of cognitive conflicts between students’ previous and new knowledge. These conflicts force them to generate alternative solutions, which in turn fosters the restructuring and construction of new cognitive schemes, and therefore increased learning. SDCT also recognizes that effective integration of new and previous knowledge is possible if the information is discovered by the learner rather than presented by the instructor. The role of the instructor is then circumscribed to asking particular questions or providing occasional prompts to show the students the inconsistencies in their thinking. This instructional strategy allows the students to self-correct errors and to develop the critical skills of problem solving (Altman & Cutter, 2004). The next section presents a detailed explanation of this process from a cognitive perspective.

Problem Solving in SDCT from a Cognitive Perspective

Dodds (1984), states that an important part of blind mobility involves conscious thought processes. The cognitive skills that are relevant in cane travel, and which are stressed under the SDCT approach, are the interrogation of the environment and testing of hypotheses about it. This includes the creation of a model of the environment through landmarks and sound cues, the awareness of one’s progress through the environment, decision-making about the best solutions and future actions, and the use of prior knowledge of the environment to guide the decision-making. Dodds (1984) explains that all these cognitive skills may be termed “problem-solving.” Instruction under the SDCT approach encourages the student to intrinsically discover the environment and its features, and to self-correct errors, which are central elements to a meaningful learning process (Altman & Cutter, 2004).

On his part, Mettler (2008) states that the information that the student uses is not always easy to verbalize and/or it is not in conscious awareness. Thus, Mettler (2008) states that it is not possible to teach problem solving in cane travel from a guided method of instruction. Ittelson (1960, as cited in Mettler, 2008) explains that a person operates with a set of assumptions that do not need to be internally consistent. The fact that these assumptions do not always work out in the travel situation is the process that helps them to become conscious. What allows the contradiction among assumptions to become conscious is the presence of unconfirmed expectations about results of an action, called “hitches” by Ittelson. Hitches permit the individual to analyze the assumptions and to refine future action. For this reason, mistakes have an important role in uncovering the inconsistencies of the assumptions. The problems that a student faces in cane travel cannot be solved by the instructor; it is the student who must work on his/her incorrect assumptions (Mettler, 1994).

Consistent with D’Zurilla and Nezu’s (1999) orienting responses concept, Mettler (2008) also explains that problem solving involves metacognition. Instruction in problem solving skills thus requires offering training in metacognitive abilities, which involves teaching awareness of one’s own thinking processes. This knowledge allows the student to improve thinking processes and to use them strategically. SDCT promotes thinking about situations and metacognitive skills through Socratic questioning, which works by integration of new and previous knowledge through the asking of questions rather than offering answers. Through the use of Socratic questioning, students are forced to think about situations based on their own perceptual awareness and interpretation of the situation. In this way, they are much more able to see inconsistencies in their thinking and self-correct errors (e.g., “where is the traffic?”, “where was the sun when I started out?”, “is this a parking lot or a driveway?”). Indeed, question prompts have been empirically proven to be a facilitating factor in problem solving processes (Chen, 2007; Ge, 2001).

To define and describe problem solving in O&M, Mettler (1994) recalls John Dewey’s set of phases involved in this ability, arguing that to divide the process of problem solving in successive stages helps the student to identify where the decision making flaws are. Throughout the development of these phases, the intervention of the instructor is reduced to a minimum with the purpose of not interrupting the flow of the process. These phases are: (a) preparation phase (recognizing the existence of a problem, identifying the type of problem and some potential solutions); (b) search phase (relating the problem to past experience to categorize it, generating hypotheses, and testing the hypotheses); and (c) resolution phase (identifying a solution appropriate to the problem and compatible with the learner’s beliefs).

Mettler’s preparation phase is clearly linked to D’Zurrilla and Nezu’s (1999) concept of orienting responses and Leahey and Harris’s (1997) understanding component of problem solving, since all have to do with the recognition of the presence of a problem and the identification of the kind of problem. As the literature shows, the ways in which a person reacts and understands a problem has cognitive and emotional components (D’Zurrilla & Nezu (1999). These components complement the concept of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), another central element in SDCT. According to Bandura (1997), self-efficacy, the belief in one’s personal abilities, regulates cognitive, motivational, and mood or affect functioning. In the field of orientation and mobility, it is possible to find students who have a variety of cognitive, motivational, and emotional styles that affect their ways of problem solving. The SDCT approach accommodates these individualities and remains flexible as part of the whole training experience by exposing students to real-life environments and situations.

On the other hand it is possible to note the parallel between Mettler’s (1994) search phase and D’Zurrilla and Nezu’s (1999) problem solving skills. The skills that the authors propose are quite important elements in SDCT because they are all involved when a student is faced with a troublesome situation, although they are not always developed on a conscious level. Defining, formulating, and generating alternative solutions enable the building up of the assumptive world that students carry within themselves (Mettler, 2008). By assuming the permanent presence of certain characteristics of the environments (e.g., different types of intersections, building locations, drivers’ behaviors according to traffic rules), the students are able to recognize inconsistencies when a problem is present. Based on that assumptive world, they are also able to devise alternative solutions.

By being trained under the three-phase process (i.e., preparation, search, resolution), the student becomes more empowered through the exercise of awakening elements of his/her cognitive and perceptual experience that were unconscious before. In this way, the student starts to master problem solving skills (Mettler, 2008). Under the SDCT approach, students are taught to master simple cane techniques, but then the focus of the lessons quickly shifts to instruction in problem solving skills. Through this approach, students learn in a meaningful way and build greater self-confidence in traveling independently (Tigges, 2004).

Basic cognitive abilities are required to problem-solve. Different students develop mental abilities differently according to the interplay of biological, psychological, social, and cultural variables. Each individual problem-solves at his/her own level, depending on the developmental stage of thinking reached (D’Zurrila & Nezu, 1999). However, as Vygotsky (1986) stated, some developmental milestones are reached through the scaffold that the environment provides. In addition, advances in neurology and cognitive psychology have also shown that cerebral structures and neurological functions may be modified by environmental factors. By considering this complexity, orientation and mobility instructors using SDCT look for each student to reach maximum potential in problem solving skills. Consequently, the SDCT approach works effectively for individuals with well-developed problem solving abilities; however, it remains sufficiently flexible to adapt to the individualized capacity of each learner, offering the scaffolds necessary to facilitate meaningful learning.


Problem solving is a high-level cognitive process recognized as essential for human beings in order to both deal with troublesome situations and offer some effective responses. Because the great majority of problems that the real-world presents are ill-structured in nature, research has demonstrated that it is essential in the field of education to teach and train students to deal with these types of problems, characterized by many alternative solutions, unclear goals, and multiple solution paths (Jonassen, 2007).

Proponents of Structured Discovery Cane Travel have recognized this necessity to the extent that problem solving processes activated by real-world situations are a vital element upon which this instructional approach is built. SDCT strategies and techniques of instruction emerged primarily from the experiences of blind people. However, it is possible to notice the parallels between this set of skills and the skills and strategies that researchers and theorists in the fields of psychology and education have demonstrated to be crucial for every learner to develop in a meaningful learning process. Among skill sets, problem solving has been demonstrated to be essential for an individual to develop the ability to successfully negotiate real-life problems, which are characterized as being unpredictable and complex. Consequently, SDCT recognizes problem solving as one of the essential components of O&M training to guarantee full independence of individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

Implications for Practitioners

Vocational rehabilitation counselors and other professionals must come to a complete understanding about the importance of supporting quality training in O&M that prepares consumers not only to respond to immediate demands, but that also prepares them to respond to the unknown and unpredictable. Problem solving is one of the central cognitive skills that provides individuals with the tools to face real-world situations, which are dynamic and unpredictable by nature. Structured Discovery Cane Travel utilizes problem solving as one of its main pillars, and has demonstrated efficacy in teaching full independence. In order to be able to make an “informed choice” about O&M, consumers should be informed about the existence of SDCT and about the advantages of receiving training in problem-solving.


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