Step 5: Solving Problems @GrantLichtman #EdJourney, Week 6, Episode 7

How might we discern if we are facing a problem, and if we are, what the problem is? In Grant Lichtman’s book, The Falconer, the chapter entitled “Step 5: Solving Problems” finds Mr. Usher and his class on a camping trip – an outing. As the class hikes Clear Creek, the trail suddenly ends.

“Mr. Usher,” he called cupping his hands around his mouth,  “the trail has stopped. There’s nowhere to go. What do we do now?”

Mr. Usher walked up to the end of the trail, and the Children gathered around him. He looked ahead at the rocks and the mountain.

“Well, you’re certainly right,” Mr. Usher said. “The trail has stopped. What do you suggest we do?”

We don’t know what to do,” Andy answered. “You’re the teacher. Tell us where to go.”

“We’ve never been here before,” added Felisa. “How are we supposed to know which way to go?”

“I’m ready for your suggestions,” said Mr. Usher. “I’m not at all sure that there is any one best way to proceed here. Who has a good idea about what to do?”

Later in the chapter:

Aaron (who you will remember had never been camping before) hugged his knees and looked up at Mr. Usher, worried. “If you knew the trail would end, why did you bring us this way?” he asked.

“I didn’t know the trail would end here. In fact, I’ve never been up the trail this far. If I had been along the trail before, this would be a pretend adventure, not a real adventure, and you’re all old enough for a real adventure on your summer Outing. In real life we don’t always know what’s going to happen next. We’re already doing exactly what one should do when one first faces a new problem. We’re sitting down calmly and thinking things out clearly. We should never rush at a problem or shoot off in the first direction that presents itself. Usually, doing nothing for a little while is a pretty good first step.”

The Children look puzzled and a little doubtful, as if they weren’t sure how doing nothing could help them whatsoever.

“So now that we’re thinking clearly,” continued Mr. Usher, “we need to decide if we really have a problem, and if so, what is it?”

I’ve read and re-read The Falconer several times. If you frequent this blog or know me beyond this virtual thinking space, you know that this book is an important one to me. I return to this section of this chapter often. It “bothers” me – in a good way, I think, but it bothers me.

There is a balance to strike. The class has a day supply of food remaining. They can’t simply think and talk the problem without acting. Yet, they probably should not just charge off in a direction, or worse yet in several different directions without some team discernment.

Isn’t this where many of us education folks are living right now? Where does our known trail of school end? What paths and trails will we forge next? How are we working together as a school to decide what our problems are, what we will decide to do next, and how we might make the journey together – as a team, not just as many individuals independently searching? Is our trail issue in schools one that can be solved over 10 years, or is the issue more pressing and immediate?

What is your school doing to discuss the trail you are taking next? How are you gathering voices and deciding on action…not just talk or directive instruction from a formal leader?

In this week’s #EdJourney video cast episode, Grant and I explore this thinking a bit further…


Follow Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney on Twitter and on his blog, The Learning Pond.

Link to blog post that contains resources mentioned in this week’s #EdJourney video cast episode: HBR article “Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?” and Eddie Obeng’s TED talk.

Step 4: Finding Problems, @GrantLichtman #EdJourney, episode 6, week 5

If there was a place along our path where my own students, year after year, wanted to stop, take a timeout, and really argue, it is right here. Our training and intuition both scream at us: “Why do I need to go looking for problems? Enough problems find me on their own!” Our educational system is firmly grounded in the concept that problem solving is the key to winning the game of life and that our daily encounters with the world provide us plenty to solve, thanks very much.

So I will tell you what I used to tell my students at this point: the central failure of our entire educational system is that we provide canned material for students to solve and expect them to return to us the correct canned answer. That is not how real problems occur that need to be solved. If we, as parents, teachers, and bosses, want our children, students, and employees to become more than robotic transponders of our historical and cultural ethos, we must teach them how to find their own problems in their own ways. Take a few more steps around this bend, and it will make sense.

So begins The Falconer chapter entitled, “Step 4: Finding Problems.” Through his #EdJourney, Grant Lichtman, author of The Falconer is engaged in his own problem finding. At this juncture of his search – the end of week 5 – Grant has identified a trend and pattern among those schools that seem to be more readily engaging the processes of educational innovation.

  1. Innovating schools appear to have a person that functions something like a C.P.F. – a chief problem finder. In many cases, of course, this person functions on a team, but the job of “Director of Innovation” (or similarly titled) possesses time and space and opportunity to engage deeply with the processes linked to The Innovator’s DNA: 1) observing, 2) questioning, 3) experimenting, 4) networking, and 5) associating.
  2. Innovating schools appear to have more balance between content-centric curriculum and context-centric curriculum. Innovating schools put students and faculty – but particularly students – in the position of problem finder. Students at innovating schools tend to have more opportunity to choose projects, propose problems they’d like to explore, participate in the “real world,” and practice the habits of mind related to problem finding. They are expected to be “directors of innovation in training.”

Innovation does not just happen. Schools curate for innovation. How are you curating for innovation at your school?

Featured posts from Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney…in week 5:

Self-Awareness & School Change: @GrantLichtman #EdJourney, episode 5, week 4

From Grant Lichtman’s chapter in The Falconer entitled “Step 2: The Boundaries of Subjectivity and Objectivity.”

Sun Tzu says, “So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.


Acceptance that something is possible opens a lot of doors to creative thinking.

Most recently, Grant’s #EdJourney blog posts on The Learning Pond have touched repeatedly on schools that voluntarily invite regular reviews from visiting colleagues – schools that practice vigorous feedback looping and self-awareness. On another thread, Grant has been reporting on a series of schools that are rethinking and/or abandoning the AP (Advanced Placement) tests. Our week 4, episode 5 video-interview below concentrates on these stories…

Step 0: Preparation @GrantLichtman #EdJourney Episode 4, 9.28.12

In “Step 0: Preparation,” the second chapter of Grant Lichtman’s book The Falconer: What We Wished We Had Learned In School, Grant offered a number of thoughts that keep me coming back to this chapter, and they seem to be relevant to this third week of Grant’s three-month, 60-school, cross-country tour exploring innovation in an interesting collection of our nation’s schools.

  • “Before we solve a problem or overcome a challenge or invent an invention or come to a personal point of realization, we have to be prepared to encounter a problem or challenge or a quest worthy of our assault. The excitement of learning, the compelling personal drive to take one more step on the path towards wisdom, comes when we try to solve a problem we want to solve, when we see a challenge and say, yes, I can meet it. Great teachers lead us just far enough down a path so we can see a challenge for ourselves. They provide us with just enough insight so we can work toward a solution that makes us, makes me want to jump up and shout out the solution to the world, makes me want to step up to the next higher level.” (pp. 19-20)
  • “If they don’t care about what I want to teach, I will teach what they care about. (p. 21)
  • “‘Here’s your homework. For next class, each one of you will write down something that you don’t understand, something that interests you that you’d like to know. Anything at all…as long as it’s somehow connected to the physical universe, and you care about the answers.'” (p. 21)
  • “In the end, we’d covered most of the major points of my original syllabus.” (p. 23)
  • “Great teachers create opportunities for students to ask questions that excite them to self-discovery.” (p. 23)
  • The first task of preparation is to create or take advantage of, the opportunity to explore, learn, lead, or challenge.” (p. 24)
  • “Happiness and success depend, in many ways, on one’s ability to calmly overcome challenges, to successfully solve problems, and to creatively take advantage of opportunities.” (p. 26)
  • “Solutions are often found by testing many different assumptions and ideas to see what works, creating options that look at the problem in new ways.” (p. 28)

The schools that Grant is visiting are “testing many different assumptions and ideas to see what works, creating options that look at the problems in new ways.” Those of us immersed in and devoted to educational enhancement, during these times of learning and school transformation, owe a great deal to the schools opening themselves to Grant so that we can see some of what they are testing and creating. And, of course, we owe a great deal to Grant for taking this #EdJourney in order to explore and examine the approaches that schools are taking as they face this educational crossroads…and for sharing his reflections and keeping us all connected so that we can learn with and from each other.

Highlight quotes and links from Grant’s visits this week – Week 3 of #EdJourney:

“But there is another, very critical layer to innovation, and that is what this post is about.  That layer is what I call the time of heavy lifting, of building the solid foundation upon which a relatively higher frequency of change and innovation becomes comfortable and a good overall fit for the organization.”

“Here are my major takeaways from Hawken, and I think they are important for any school, but most importantly for those where leaders are being really cautious about making changes for fear of upsetting faculty or parents.  First, with clarity, inclusion, and adequate preparation, our organizations can withstand a lot more change than we think. As Scott left me with, “if you are going to make some changes, go big”.  Second, taking on an issue like time and taming it to your needs instead of the other way around will change mindsets at your school.  People will get comfortable with change where once they feared it; they will embrace evolution where once they were stuck in the familiar.  These are critical traits for surviving in a changing world.  It takes courage to do these, but examples like Hawken prove what is possible, and the possible is what we should be all about.”

“We walked across the street, left the block walls and tired halls and visited two classes that Eric has arranged with Community College.  One is a beginning robotics class, students bent over benches putting together their first remote-controlled cars, fiddling with pieces and asking questions.  Eric said it is just like turning a switch when the students leave that place they associate with tedious, normal school life and come over here.  The fights and harsh words disappear.  They focus on the teacher. They engage.  They are actively participating in learning, and much of it is because they have inadvertently discarded their image of what school is.”

“As the Center concept grew, Bill feels they recognized deeper layers, that discovery is the true key to learning, and discovery does not happen in a class where the students are always the recipients of knowledge….

Busting the rigid silos of department was not without a bit of pain, but Koyen feels it was a modest level of pain, and well worth it.  It sometimes is messy to know who must be included in what decisions as the interest of the Centers intersect with the interests of the academic departments, but the faculty works it out and have grown stronger in the process. Koyen says “It is pretty obvious that there is conflict between traditional teaching and the way the world works”.

“SLA is a public magnet school and a partnership with The Franklin Institute, a major museum and science center in Philadelphia.  They have a rigorous college prep program, though devoid of AP’s. All of their classes are taught in a project-based environment and as a community they embrace the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. ”

@GrantLichtman #EdJourney, episode 3: Systems of Innovation – Midwest

How might we understand the parts and the whole of a system?

Mr. Usher asked the Children to measure off a square on the ground that measured six feet on a side and to mark the square with the string they had found in the toolbox. When the yellow strong was measured out and stretched on the ground, and two of the Children had wisely put large stones on the string to keep it in place, Mr. Usher asked the Children to sit around the square on the ground.

“Now, Children,” Mr. Usher began, “we’re going to learn a very important skill today, more important than how to throw a baseball or how to make peanut butter sandwiches, and almost as important as how to read or write or do addition and subtraction. I want you to look at the square we’ve marked out, and I want you to write down everything that’s in the square, or is happening in the square, or is part of the square, or makes something happen in the square. Everything. Work together and come up with a list. Tell me when you’re finished.” And with that, Mr. Usher sat down with his back to a thick young oak tree, pulled his hat down over his eyes, and looked as if he had decided to take a little nap.

This passage comes from Grant Lichtman’s chapter in The Falconer entitled, “Step 3: Understanding the System.” Our schools are systems. How do we understand these systems? How might we understand them better?

Grant’s #EdJourney road trip is in the second week. Grant is studying the systems. What is he finding within the yellow string that he is setting in place with large stones…


Catch up on the whole season…

Denver – @GrantLichtman #EdJourney, episode 2 – 9.13.12

Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney Videocast, Episode 1