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.