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:

A piece of “what:” map making, problem finding, messy searching

Rebecca Chapman, literary editor of a new online journal called The New Inquiry, was quoted in the New York Times. “My whole life, I had been doing everything everybody told me. I went to the right school. I got really good grades. I got all the internships. Then, I couldn’t do anything.”

The only surprising thing about this statement is that some consider it surprising.

Rebecca trained to be competent, excelling at completing the tasks set in front of her. She spent more than sixteen years at the top of the system, at the best schools, with the best resources, doing what she was told to do. [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, no one is willing to pay her to do tasks. Without a defined agenda, it’s difficult for her to find the gig she was trained for.

[Then, later…] Education isn’t a problem until it serves as a buffer from the world and a refuge from the risk of failure.

(from section 35, pages 53-54, of Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams.” Read the entire section and manifesto here.)

In my jobs as teacher, school administrator, husband, father, educational innovator, etc., I am having to search and discover what needs to be addressed, celebrated, ceased and desisted, opened, studied, innovated, reiteratively prototyped, and enhanced. No one is digesting the messiness for me and handing me well-crafted assignments to complete. While I was in formal school, I think the tasks given to me and the work assigned to me taught me invaluable lessons that I would not trade for the world. I am eternally grateful to my school teachers. But my life has also been filled with the need to make maps, not just read them. I have found it essential that I find problems, not just solve the ones given me. I have needed to search through mess and muck to explore possibilities, connections, relationships, and opportunities. I don’t think I learned these things enough in my formal schooling. Why shouldn’t we incorporate more of this set of modalities into school? Why can’t we create and design more balance into the system of well-defined problems and ready-made assignments?

As the school year begins, are you…

  • Letting students wander in search of their own questions and curiosities, or just directing them to the ones you’ve already defined?
  • Designing space and time for map making, or just promoting and teaching map following?
  • Getting off to the side while students find problems that they think need solving, or just having them solve problems with answers that can be found in the back of a textbook?
  • Making room for students to explore what various real-life work feels like, smells like, tastes like, and sounds like…or just handing them the packages of industrial-age school?

[“A piece of ‘why,'” A piece of ‘what,'” and A piece of ‘how'” are strands of a series on why school needs to change, what about school needs to change, and how schools might navigate the change.]