Sunday, November 21, 2010

Solving Problems in Education with Simple, Unorthodox Solutions

Thinking outside the box. 

It's a phrase we repeat often.  How often do we really do it, though?  We tend to make decisions based on past experiences.  Those experiences may come from observation, reading, watching television, or actually experiencing something first-hand.  Sometimes we synthesize our past experiences to create new paradigms.  Still, we're limited to that which we know. 

When it comes to problem-solving and we don't have the proper prior knowledge or experience, we seek out new information.  The problem- we seek out information using the same familiar channels.  The result is predictable.  Our solutions never deviate far from our center of comfort. 

To make the problem worse, we have a tendency only consider solutions that work by addition.  We don't consider that complexity and the resulting confusion may be the root of the problem.  We can't focus on the signal because there's too much noise.  

For example, if students are struggling, the automatic solution is to add more.  More tutoring.  More homework.  More rigor.  More noise.

How do we combat this seemingly automatic response?  We need to force ourselves to look for simple solutions by using a different perspective than that which caused the problem in the first place. 

In regards to the simple solutions, I like the urban legend of the U.S. Space Program and space pens.  

As the legend goes, the first U.S. astronauts found their ink pens did not work in zero gravity.  NASA commissioned its top engineers to tackle the problem.  Designs were drawn up.  Prototypes were built.  Endless experiments were conducted.  Data was collected and analyzed.  Several years and tens of millions of dollars later, NASA engineers developed a state-of-the-art miracle of technology- the pressurized pen.  The pressurized chamber allowed astronauts to write in the absence of gravity (remember the commercials from our youth... the same pens were eventually sold to the American public as the pens that could write upside down).  NASA championed the pen as a crowning feat of American ingenuity and work ethic.  At a cost of only 20 million dollars and a few years, the best minds at NASA conquered the mystery of writing in space.

The Soviets solved the same problem by using pencils.

Complex is rarely better.  Unfortunately it is our default mode of operation.  The best way to counter this habit- think "subtraction" before "addition".  What can we take away from a problem to solve it?  Try it.  You'll be surprised... it's a much more efficient way to solve problems. 

On the issue of thinking outside the box, the best solution is to re-frame the problem.  As educators, we like to solve our problems by consulting education experts, education research, our own experiences or training in our education programs, or collaboration with... other educators.  

The problem is obvious- this model assumes other educational resources have solutions.  It doesn't consider the idea that the education system itself may be part of the problem, or even the cause of the problem. 

As I mentioned before, I've found a lot of great answers to my own problems both inside and outside the classroom by looking through a completely different lens.  A handful of resources, completely unrelated to education, have provided a wealth of potential solutions to problems I've struggled with for years.  

The open source lesson planning is one such example.  Normally, educators get wrapped up in the idea that we're the education experts.  As such, we think we're the solution to all problems related to education.  We ignore the role of the our community, families, and others outside the school... unless they claim to be experts in education.  T

his arrogance on our part is silly, it marginalizes a wealth of potential solutions that do not share our biases.  The open source lesson planning borrows a philosophy that has been immensely successful in other industries and blends it with elements of an education model that is immensely successful- homeschooling.

Being an expert in anything only means you've committed to one particular line of thinking.  The more "expert" we are, the less likely we are to see solutions that reside outside our area of expertise.  In the realm of education, our "expertise" blinds us to many potential solutions that would be painfully obvious to anyone that does not share our biases.  

If we consult experts, education experts should be the LAST people we contact.  Let's contact gardening experts.  Or expert salespeople.  Or expert welders.  Counter-intuitive?  Yes.  Unorthodox?  Yes.  Will they force us to think outside the box?  Yes.

Some of my favorite quotes on the matter:

"The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. " -Einstein

"The bigger the real-life problems, the greater the tendency for the discipline to retreat into a reassuring fantasy-land of abstract theory and technical manipulation." -Tom Naylor

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