In Admiration of the Solution- Not the Problem

A mentor once commented to me that we educators spend far more time admiring problems than working on solutions to them. It was always a bit frustrating to walk into his office and hear him say, “So, are you here to admire this problem or do you want to fix it?” That statement forced me to think about the difference between venting about an issue versus taking responsibility, making the choice to work on solutions. I’ve learned in life that we sometimes need to simply describe frustrations, knowing full well that something may not of the highest priority for fix-it time or we just need a reflective partner in the think-aloud process. However, I’ve also learned that we defer taking on tough problems because we’ve sometimes been trained too well to avoid confrontation of issues. We don’t like conflict with others with opposing viewpoints; or our traditions seem so entrenched that to make a change in practice just feels too daunting.

I’ve spent some time this week wondering what causes a paralysis in us that results in our avoidance of finding solutions to problems we talk about routinely. For example, we say with great sincerity that we want our young people to engage in creative problem-solving, in analysis, in design work necessary to finding new ways of thinking about solutions, in articulation of the big picture, and evaluation processes. Yet, the very core of our professional work leads to an opposite result. If we truly want what we say we want, I wonder daily how we begin to change, even incrementally, the current structures, processes, and practices that create learners who won’t take the necessary risks to become solution-finders rather than problem admirers. I wonder if the biggest roadblock happens to be that we are mostly incapable of taking those risks ourselves.

Finding solutions to problems implies that something needs to change. Many of us in education are change adverse for a variety of reasons including that we educators were mostly successful in the schools of our past. Even as we rail against the concept of factory schools, we work hard to maintain our traditions of factory schooling. While we say we want learners who are willing to think for themselves and pursue learning independent of our direction, we set up situations where we hold our learners in thrall to our direction with little opportunity to practice independence and see models of independent learners.

We say to learners in our words, through our own modeling behaviors, and the practices we use that we want them to generate formulaic responses – more similar rather than different solutions. We expect them to ask us for help rather than work in collaboration with peers or on their own to figure out how to answer their own questions. We design classrooms to control learners at the individual level rather than facilitate learning at a collaborative level. It’s apparent in the arrangement of furniture, the teaching wall, the technology access, and the spaces we create. We are creatures of habit and the way we set up the learning environment maintains a familiar habitat for us.

This week I listened to a group of fifth graders describe the library of their dreams. Few wanted chairs or tables. They wanted their living room at home. They wanted technology everywhere. They wanted “caves, watering holes, and campfires” where they could find privacy or places to gather together for different purposes. In many ways, they haven’t been corrupted into accepting the factory school model as gospel yet. The librarian, the principal, Ira Socol (@irasocol) and I chatted about why we do what we do. Ira pushed us to think about why we create in schools what we resist for ourselves.

Kids wiggle, they kick their feet, they work hard to control their physical response to the solid chairs and desk surfaces that crowd them together in this place we call school. When they just can’t do it anymore, they become our behavior problems, our tardies, our truants, and, eventually too many of them become our dropouts.

None of us wants to lose a learner. We wouldn’t be in this work if we did.

In the early morning hours, I wonder what would happen if we stopped admiring the problem of dependent, other-directed learners and took a deep breath and began to change the practices, the procedures, and the structures we use to get exactly the learners we don’t want. This week, a few educators with whom I work have  been doing just that. It’s been a delight to watch them explore together how we might get there.

In reflection, every great adventure begins with a few scouts and pioneers who take great risks to explore new frontiers. However, I am thinking in the wee hours this morning that the significant challenge lies in how we make the journey safe for the settlers who follow. If we figure that out, it will be a solution to admire.

7 thoughts on “In Admiration of the Solution- Not the Problem

  1. Pam, I have been having a very similar conversation within my own head over the last couple of weeks. The cognitive dissonance between what I say I believe and how I actually deliver on a daily basis is getting too loud to ignore. It’s a scary step to take, but I have found people in my professional network who challenge me daily to keep the vision in front of me and start taking the steps I need to take in order to align my walk with my talk. There are leaders and schools where this alignment is perfect, and I keep looking to them to remind myself that it’s not just a fantasy: it can be done and is being done. Part of my challenge as a leader is how to share the vision without imposing it. I don’t suppose there’s a recipe for that, is there?

    • I wonder if it’s through our questions more than our advising that we create the path from admiring problems to finding solutions. I try to catch myself when I am falling into the blame-framing that leads no where. I also try to remind myself that just because we think we taught something, it doesn’t mean anyone learned from us… if not, we need to question what we need to do to change, rather than assuming someone else needs to change. Perhaps, it lies in our own introspective processing of leadership that we can find the guiding path for our work. I do know we cannot do this work alone. We can’t depend on others to do it in isolation of ourselves. It about allying ourselves with others who understand that we need to support each other, get out of the world of excuses, and take the steps to be honest about our values for what we believe to be right to do. Then, we must always be willing to take risks, make mistakes, and figure out how we become responsible tot those we serve. looking forward to hearing from you.

  2. Find the need. Meet the need. (Without blame)

    One of my graduate professors always said that phrase, I added the Parenthesis

  3. Wonderful post! Found it via Twitter and have retweeted it today. I think your message about looking for solutions instead of admiring problems is profound and generally valuable. Thank you!

    • Peter,

      Thank you for retweet. It’s when we move into a “we” of solution finding that I think we find the energy to overcome problem-admiration. At some level, we have to hold ourselves responsible for staying out of problem-admiration behaviors. Such behaviors don’t just debilitate us but also the entire team and organization. it’s refreshing to hear such a positive perspective from you- i bet you refresh those around you!


  4. As I read your conversation, I feel such relief. If there were a way to capture all of the time and energy we spend of fencing ourselves in, we could truly make friends with change. I read an article in The Sun many years ago that pertains. I have tried to find it, unsuccessfully – but the message I retained was that many people define themselves by whatever they can find to push against. And that often we think that people who are cynical, witty, sharp, critical are highly intelligent. People who decide to live more openly positive, to not be reactive or defensive, to take the risk of being open and willing are often labeled as simplistic, naive, unsophisticated…less intelligent. When trying to envision or problem solve, it helps to bring the positive forward, shatter the problem with ideas, celebrate the “not knowing for sure” mentality. We need to live our lives as discovery. We need to model this to our children. I am an educator. I feel things moving and opening up. Fantastic time to be involved. Sue

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