Module 25: future problem solving introduction

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Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future
© UNESCO 2010



Future Problem Solving is a strategy for helping students develop skills for analysing a problem. Working through a six step process can help them decide – from a futures perspective – what should be done about a problem. The six steps are:

  • Identifying possible causes and effects of a problem

  • Identifying the underlying problem

  • Brainstorming potential solutions

  • Developing criteria for evaluating solutions

  • Evaluating all solutions to determine the best one

  • Developing an action plan

As well as developing problem solving skills, this teaching strategy also helps students to develop an interest in the future and improve their research, group work and communication skills.

The problem chosen to illustrate the Future Problem Solving strategy in this module is waste management, a problem that is becoming increasingly serious because the amount of waste is growing all around the world. Solutions to the problems of both solid and chemical waste are considered in this module.


  • To appreciate the importance of integrating a futures perspective

  • To develop expertise in using Future Problem Solving as a teaching strategy

  • To plan ways of using the Future Problem Solving strategy when teaching other topics


  1. Fantasy voyage

  2. Waste problems

  3. Future Problem Solving

  4. Reflection


_____ (1997) Trash – Heaps of Trouble, New Internationalist, No. 295.

_____ (1999) Hazardous Waste, Our Planet, No. 104.

Barrett,T., MacLabhrainn, I. and Fallon, H. (eds) (2005) Handbook of Enquiry and Problem-based Learning. Irish Case Studies and International Perspectives, AISHE, Released under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

Boswell, R. (1998) Learning Theme Packs, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.

Crabb, A. (1998) The Coach’s Guide to Future Problem Solvers Program, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.

Crabb, A. (n.d.) Problem Solving Across the Curriculum, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.

Crabb, A. (n.d.) Student Guide Workbook, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.

Future Problem Solving Program International


This module was written for UNESCO by Bernard Cox, Margaret Calder, John Fien and Clayton White from materials and activities by Tony Hepworth in Teaching for a Sustainable World (UNESCO – UNEP International Environmental Education Programme).


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

This activity involves a fantasy voyage to a planet in another galaxy – in our imaginations.

You can take the journey in one of two ways. Click on the version you prefer:

  • Read about the voyage

  • Listen to a trip report on the voyage

Q1: Record your feelings and reactions as you read about the distant planet.

  • What are your overall feelings about the distant planet?

  • What do you like about the planet? Why?

  • What do you dislike most? Why?

  • What do you think about the way the people on the distant planet use their resources? Why?

  • What do you think is the future for the people of this planet? Why?

The descriptions in the Fantasy Voyage are examples of reality from our own times and our own planet.

Read more about solid waste and hazardous waste to develop an understanding of the challenge of waste management which is used as the example in this module for developing skills in using Future Problem Solving strategies in teaching.

Any judgements we make about waste management (or other issues) should be based on a combination of our values (that is, the things we cherish) and our knowledge, which we have tested as far as possible to be sure that it is true.

Q2: We made judgements about the people on the distant planet.

  • Are the same judgements true about the people on Earth early in the 21st century?

  • What evidence do you have for making this judgement?

  • Why is it sometimes hard to find and verify this evidence?

Review a sample answer to this question.


This part of the module provides some basic knowledge for understanding problems associated with waste before examining the technique of Future Problem Solving.

The fantasy voyage was an introduction to the problems of chemical waste, but the ‘throwaway society’ many of us live in brings with it waste problems of another nature. Sometimes industry lacks responsible strategies for dealing with the waste by-products of their manufacturing processes. Much waste also comes from the transport and package of the products sold. Much also comes from our own homes and schools.

The volume of garbage, or solid waste, that in some societies is collected from outside the front doors of our homes, offices and factories once or twice a week, is evidence of how much many of us throw away. However, many towns and cities lack regular waste collection services and their garbage builds up on footpaths and vacant land, especially along river banks.

In the affluent North, the amount of waste generated is a reflection of a ‘throwaway’ culture. For example, the throwaway list in the USA each year includes:

  • 52,000,000,000 cans

  • 8,000,000 TV sets

  • 30,000,000,000 bottles and jars

  • 7,000,000 cars

  • 4,000,000 tonnes of plastic

  • 30,000,000 tonnes of paper.

The rapid increase in the use of materials as nations industrialise is accompanied by a rapid increase in waste. In addition to the growing quantity of waste there are many grave concerns about its ‘quality’.

Modern consumer products contain toxic substances that create problems of disposal. Old car batteries contain heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. Household cleaners, solvents and paints, and the pesticides and herbicides that we use on our gardens, also often contain hazardous chemicals.

Over the last 20 years many nations have come to realise that the traditional reliance on landfill as a method of disposal can create its own set of problems. In the first place, landfills take up space that in most cities of the world is very valuable. Secondly, landfills can eventually ‘leak’ – releasing a toxic mix of rainwater and decomposing waste into the soil and groundwater.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Future Problem Solving is an exciting and practical strategy for helping students develop skills for analysing a problem. It is based on a sequence of five steps that help them decide – from a futures perspective – what should be done about a problem.

In developing problem solving skills, this teaching strategy also helps students to develop an interest in the future and improve their research, group work and communication skills.

For an overview and a guide to an extensive range of support sources visit the Future Problem Solving Programme.

This activity models how the Future Problem Solving strategy can be applied to the waste management problems in a fictional city called Bergana.

Read background information on the problem of waste management in Bergana.


A very important part of the Future Problem Solving strategy is developing a clear, but interesting and challenging, statement of a problem. This helps students learn to focus on solutions that address underlying causes – rather than just the symptoms of the problem.

In a good problem statement, the problem is set in the near future. It is established by examining the causes and effects that are interacting to create a current problem, and then thinking forward approximately 10 years. The problem is then either ‘out of hand’ or getting that way, and the students are asked to plan a series of steps that will rectify the problem – and that probably should have been set in train 10 or so years back – in the present time.

Read a statement of the problem in Bergana.

Q3: Explain why this is a good statement of the problem.

Review a list of reasons why this is a good statement of the problem.


Once the teacher has prepared a clear statement of the problem and presented it to students in an interesting way (e.g. newspaper cuttings, a story, a video, a role play, etc.), students follow a six step process for Future Problem Solving.

  1. Identifying possible causes and effects

  2. Identifying the underlying problem

  3. Brainstorming potential solutions to the underlying problem

  4. Developing criteria to evaluate solutions

  5. Evaluating all solutions to determine the best one

  6. Developing an action plan for the best solution

Source: Adapted from Crabbe, A. (1985) The Coach’s Guide to Future Problem Solvers Program, Future Problem Solving Program, Ann Arbor.


Q4: Identifying possible causes and effects

Now that we understand the statement of the problem in Bergana, it is time to consider the many problems related to it. Start by brainstorming (on a sheet of paper) as many factors as you can think of that may have caused the situation or may have resulted from it. Choose the ten you think most important.

Q5: Identifying the underlying problem

  • Study your list of ten factors (Question 4) and identify the main underlying problem.

  • Explain what you want to do about the problem.

  • Explain why it should be done.

  • Use the headings in your learning journal to guide your answers.

Q6: Brainstorming potential solutions to the underlying problem
Brainstorm – on a sheet of paper, again – as many solutions as you can. Choose the ten most promising solutions and write each solution so that it indicates:

  • Who will undertake what action?

  • How will it be done?

  • Why will this solve the problem?

Q7: List three criteria that a very good solution to the problem ought to meet.

Q8: Evaluating all solutions to determine the best one
Using the ten possible solutions from Question 6, identify what you think will be the very best solution to the underlying problem. It might link several ideas from your ten.

Q9: Developing an action plan for the best solution
Outline the stages you will need to follow to implement this solution. Then note the possible consequences of implementing each step. It is best not to identify more than five stages.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.


The solution you have suggested should be both desirable and practicable. It is desirable if it eases or removes the problem without creating other more serious problems. It is practicable if it can possibly be implemented in the Bergana situation; that is, in terms of social effects, cost, labour, machinery and technology.

Q10: Describe your solution in terms of its desirability and practicability.

Q11: List the six steps of future problem solving you followed in the Bergana case study.

Q12: Describe how you could use the six steps of future problem solving and the Bergana case study with a class you teach.

Q13: Identify another problem related to a topic in a syllabus you teach, and develop a plan for teaching it using the future problem solving strategy.

A Fantasy Voyage

Make yourself as comfortable as possible … relax … take your mind off any worries or concerns that might be bothering you … blot out any noises that might be going on outside the room … and begin to breathe in and out in a steady fashion …

… breathe in to the count of 1 … 2 … 3 and out to the count of 1 … 2 … 3, in 1 … 2 … 3 and out 1 … 2 … 3, in 1 … 2 … 3 …

… now make your mind a blank … fill it with a warm, soft darkness … and relax … slowly you become conscious of a gentle movement …

… you are in a spacecraft exploring outer space and other worlds … your craft is gently and quietly moving across the surface of a planet never visited by humans before … it’s a living planet and inhabited … but while you can see those who live there, they cannot see you … your spacecraft is ‘cloaked’ with invisibility …

… Your space craft sinks lower to the surface … and through its enormous observation window you see signs of what you would call ‘urban settlement’ … homes of inhabitants are built very close together … many are large and spacious … these creatures obviously have a high standard of living … and a high level of technology …

… then you begin to flow over a poorer section … the homes are run down … in need of repair … and many seem deserted … the chemical sensor warns you of poisonous substances in the air and the soil … you send the sensor to do a time scan … and the results are strange …

… for a long time in its history this section of land was clean and healthy … then in a very brief period of time these poisons suddenly appeared … almost as if they had been dumped there … it’s disappointing and worrying … but you move on …

… and then you fly over forested mountains and hills … you see many small streams coming together to form a large, majestic river … you follow this river and see many farms and rural settlements along its course … not unlike your home planet Earth … these creatures are obviously advanced …

… as the river gets closer to its mouth factories appear along its banks … buildings that resemble oil refineries are common … and again you are impressed by the level of development … not unlike Earth in the late 20th century … however, the chemical sensor display warns of the presence of carcinogens … your computer breaks in to the computer of a large hospital … the records show high rates of cancer and miscarriages … more disappointing and more worrying …

… the space craft moves on over a densely populated area of this land … and you keep checking your chemical sensor display … gradually the pattern of settlement becomes obvious … the better off dwellings are in the cleaner areas … the lower class dwellings are in areas that drive the chemical sensor display into a frenzy …

… you memo your computer log … ‘On this planet the rich do well and many of the poor get poisoned’ …

… Your craft moves on … across a sea and over another land area of this planet … once again you are over a rural area … and you see farms and villages … but the farms are neglected … and five villages are completely empty of life … ‘ghost towns’ … why? …

… the chemical sensor display registers high levels of heavy metals in the air and soil … and there below you is the guilty party … a large copper smelting plant, pumping out pollution …

… you begin a memo to your computer log … ‘These inhabitants appear to want to kill themselves and their planet’ … but you cannot finish it … you are overwhelmed by the problems you have seen …

… you fly further … over another sea … and below you is a cargo vessel … sailing peacefully … you fly lower … trying to regain your composure … the sea is calm and blue … twin suns are setting on the horizon … beautiful …

… and then your chemical display sensor begins to scream at you … the ship is transporting carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) … your computer breaks into the ships records and … these PCBs are being exported!!! … from a rich country to a poor country! … because the rich country does not want them … and the poor country needs money so it is being paid to take them …

… you memo your computer log … ‘Here, they export ill health! and others import it!’ … it is difficult to stay calm …

… you send your computer on a search … and it uncovers a medical report that predicts a wave of chemical illnesses and chemical refugees in the near future … ‘chemical refugees’??? …

… It is clear this is a planet of barbarians and holds nothing for the civilised people of Earth … the spacecraft gathers speed … and moves off into outer space … looking for other, more appealing planets to explore … this one is a lost cause …

… the warm, soft darkness fills your mind again … relax … relax …

… When you are ready … come out of your fantasy journey … become conscious of your surroundings … start working on your computer.

Verifying Evidence

We live in a world where large amounts of information are available. Yet it is still hard to verify, or test the truth of information we use as evidence. We have to be sure of its relevance. So it helps to know the context in which information is gathered. We have to be wary of bias, and the misuse of statistics. Try to confirm accuracy by comparing what different sources say about the same information; by examining its logic; and by seeking respected sources.

Waste Problems in Bergana

Existing Conditions

The current system for the collection of solid waste in Bergana is unreliable because of a number of local conditions. These include:

  • Bergana has a population of 7 million people and is growing very rapidly.

  • The torrential rains of the monsoon season cause flooding of the streets and severe deterioration of the paved roads necessary for refuse collection trucks.

  • Inaccessibility to the refuse sources because of the extensive areas where squatters live and because of the narrow, poorly maintained streets in many of the communities.

  • Poor road systems in the landfill disposal sites prevent refuse collection trucks from delivering their loads the wet season.

  • Bergana is very large and the collection vehicles are rather small. As a result the trucks must travel long distances to the landfill sites and make many trips. Some of these inefficiencies could be overcome by building transfer stations but funds are not available for this.
  • All of the existing landfill sites are poorly located for a city as large as Bergana has become in recent years. For example, groundwater pollution is incresing and there is insufficient clean soil for the daily earth cover necessary for a sanitary landfill operation.

  • The lack of earth cover of each day’s refuse allows storm water to infiltrate the refuse. This causes anaerobic decomposition of the refuse and results in strong odours from the gas generated. Fires often ignite as a result. The lack of earth cover also provides ideal breeding grounds for rodents, flies and other vermin which can then migrate into nearby communities.

As a result, the best description of the existing landfill sites would be to classify them as open dumps rather than sanitary landfills.

In a properly operated sanitary landfill, the area would be fenced and the access gate serviced by either a series of scales for weighing the incoming tonnage or by a gate house where an estimate could be made of the yards of refuse to be disposed.

If this were done, then an appropriate charge could be made to the users of the landfill to recover the capital and operating costs for the landfill site.

Proposed Guidelines for Solid Waste Management in Bergana

A new plan calls for two landfills, one to serve the northern portion of the city, and the other to serve the southern part.

This would require a substantial number of heavy trucks and the construction of five transfer stations.

It is proposed that the new landfill sites be selected according to the following criteria:

  • They should be located in areas where there is no useable groundwater under the site.

  • There should be adequate buffer zones between the landfill site and other commercial and residential areas.

  • Access roads should be adequate for heavy collection vehicles and the roads should be wide enough to accommodate the refuse vehicles without leaving the paved surface.

  • Fences should be built around the entire disposal site to prevent access by squatters or scavengers.

The proposed new operational procedures include:

  • The sanitary landfill should not cause any nuisance to the community, for example by

    • placing soil over the refuse each day to ensure drainage of storm water;

    • controlling dust by water trucks each day;

    • alternative wet weather dumping areas constructed for access during rainy season; and

    • covering land fills on completion to support trees and shrubs.

  • Methane gas which can be produced anaerobically from within the landfill can be drawn off for use in gas engines or burned in a steam generating plant for producing electricity, if gas trenches and wells are constructed in the landfill.

  • Transfer stations should be designed to provide storage of refuse in a pit so that the collection vehicles can be promptly moved in and out of the station. If refuse storage is not provided, there must be an adequate number of transfer vehicles available at all times to accept refuse directly from the collection vehicles.

Water Quality Management

The major river systems in the Bergana Region – the Tinton and the Arita – flow into Laguna Bay. The rivers are so polluted from the discharge of domestic and industrial wastewater that they can be termed ‘biologically dead’ except for the upstream portion of the Arita River. Most of the pollutants discharged in the region’s river systems eventually end up in Laguna Bay.

The Tinton River flows east to west for 25kms through Bergana to Laguna Bay. 70% of the organic pollution in the river is due to domestic waste and 30% to industrial discharges. Out of over 300 industrial firms along the banks of the river system, about one-half have been found to be polluting the water in varying degrees. River pollution is further aggravated by oil spills from over 200 service stations, several oil depots, and barges, tanks and boats docking in the area.

The Arita River system is the most polluted in the country – 58% domestic waste (both liquid and solid waste) and 42% from industrial waste. There are about 1000 industries along the river banks and about 16000 squatter families living within its watershed.

Both the Arita and the Tinton River systems have been significantly affected by the vast quantities of silt deposited in the river beds, which cause regular flooding due to riverbank overflows during intense rains. Siltation is caused by soil scoured from deforested upper watershed areas outside Bergana and by bank erosion.

Most of the pollutants eventually end up in Laguna Bay. The Bay is, therefore, the recipient of domestic and industrial waste discharges, agricultural runoffs and oil spills. One of the major causes of the pollution in the bay is the lack of adequate domestic wastewater sewerage facilities. Only about 15% of the population of Bergana is presently sewered. The increase in direct discharges of domestic and industrial wastes, and agricultural runoff, plus pollution carried in by tributary rivers, has degraded the water quality of Laguna Bay over the years. In the last 20 years, the watershed area of the lake has become one of the most heavily urbanised and industrialised areas in the region.

This is a good statement of the problem because:

  • It is about a real problem.

  • It is set in the near future.

  • The urgency is emphasised.

  • The causes and effects of the problem are identified.

Future Problem Solving – A Six Step Process

Identifying Possible Causes and Effects

In this step, students divide into small teams and brainstorm what the causes of the problem are, or might be, and what the effects are, or might be. It is, in a sense, a ‘familiarisation tour’ of the problem. All ten spaces in the learning journal should be completed as this ensures that the possible causes and effects have been well thought through.

This usually takes about 20 minutes.

Identifying the Underlying Problem

This is a more structured step. The teams need to synthesise the ideas dealt with in Step 1 to arrive at what they consider the nub of the problem. The first two parts to this step (‘how can we’ and ‘because’) are self-explanatory but the final part (‘so that’) needs to address the pros and cons of their goals, e.g. in the Bergana case study students could say:

The (who) of Bergana must … (action) … because (why) … by … (how) … and in that way … (why it will solve the problem) …

For example:

  • The government must educate the factory owners and people to reduce the amount of waste in Bergana

  • Because the city is dying under its own weight of rubbish
  • So that the factories and people of Bergana will make the effort to change their habits

  • Because this will lead to major improvements in health, hygiene and city appearance.

This step usually takes about 15 minutes.

Brainstorming Potential Solutions to the Underlying Problem

In this step, students in the teams generate solutions to their chosen underlying problem. The test here is whether or not they stay on the task and that all their possible solutions are consistent with the problem they have specified. Once again, there are 10 spaces in the learning journal to ensure the problem is thought through and that teams do not stop at the first three or four solutions.

The purpose of Steps 1 and 3 is to generate as many ideas as possible in the hope that one or more of these ideas may trigger a realistic solution to a genuine problem. It is important in this step that the teams specify who is involved, what and how it is being investigated, and why. It is important to ensure, for example, that all the ‘who’ are not ‘the government’. Clearly any complex problem requires contributions from a variety of individuals and agencies, and a listing of the ‘who’ involved should preclude one or two agencies being named to do all the work.

This step usually takes about 20 minutes.

Developing Criteria to Evaluate Solutions

Principles for living sustainably need to be applied when seeking to solve problems and work towards a sustainable future. This requires the development of problem-specific criteria related to principles such as:

  • Social equity and peace

  • Appropriate development

  • Conservation
  • Democracy

Using principles such as these as a guide, one sample criterion for evaluating the potential solutions could be: “Is the solution fair to the greatest number of people, especially those most directly affected?”

Criteria need to be written for the other principles of sustainability as well as related principles that the teams believe are important.

This step usually takes about 15 minutes.

Evaluating all Solutions to Determine the Best One

The teams are required to use the criteria they developed in Step 4 to evaluate the potential solutions to identify the solution that they believe will be the best one. This might involve combining parts of some solutions to synthesise their ideas.

They should then express their best solution as succinctly as possible. Their consistency of thinking is tested here and the best solution must clearly address the underlying problem summarised in Step 2.

This step usually takes about 15 minutes.

Developing an Action Plan for the Best Solution

In this step the teams agree on the sequence of actions needed to bring about a full implementation of their preferred solution. This sequence is dealt with in the column headed ‘stages’ in the learning journal.

Here the teams need to show what they would do, step by logical step, so that their solution would stand the best chance of being accepted. At the same time as this sequence is being worked on, the teams need to consider the consequences that might flow from the actions involved in each of the ‘stages’.

If, for example, the first stage of the implementation were: ‘Large fines for anybody caught littering’, then the consequences might be so negative that the rest of the stages could not be brought into operation. On the other hand, if a different initial stage were implemented, then positive consequences might occur and the rest of the stages would stand a better chance of success.

This step usually takes about 20 minutes.

Guide to Brainstorming

  • Use your imagination to get a wide range of ideas.

  • You can combine ideas while you are working. Try to improve your ideas.

  • Try to think of many different ideas. This will improve your chances of finding a good solution.

  • Don’t dismiss or be critical of any ideas too early.

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