Getting the Right Problem in Education

Have you heard about the race to create a space pen?

The story goes that in the 1960s, NASA was facing a challenge: traditional pens wouldn’t work in the zero gravity environment of space, but astronauts needed to write. The NASA engineers asked, “How can we design a pen that writes in space?”. They busily put their brilliant minds to working on a space pen. Months went by, millions of dollars were spent, and voila: a beautifully designed space pen was designed and produced for American astronauts. The Russians, meanwhile, asked, “How might astronauts write in space?”. They spent a few dollars and an afternoon to buy the right pencils. It turns out this story is a myth — check out here and here for the real story. However, part of the reason it’s a popular, sticky story is because it illustrates a very important point: asking the right questions is the most important part of problem solving.

In design thinking (a popular approach to creative problem solving), they put it this way: there are two main phases to solving a problem: getting the right problem, and getting the problem right.

By far the most important phase is getting the right problem.

Yet in education we keep skipping straight to solutions — we are busily “innovating” in getting the problem right without asking whether we even have the right problem. This has led to a seemingly endless cycle of reform with very little positive change.

Today, questions about “personalized learning” and “college and career readiness” are driving most of the “innovation” in education. These questions are not bad in a moral sense, in fact they’re largely well-intentioned — but, they have a limited notion of what school does and can do. We’re asking “How can we increase our test scores?” without asking, “Do these tests measure what we think is important?” We’re saying, “How do we get every kid to college and a STEM career?” without asking, “What is it about the college experience or specific careers we actually care about?”

Most fundamentally, we’re asking, “How can we reimagine school?” without having asked, “What is the purpose of school?”

Questions like, “But does giving kids recess or art class increase test scores?” make me want to respond, “Mu”. This is a Japanese word that has been adopted in the Buddhist tradition as a response to questions that presuppose an answer that is too limited for the truth of the respondent’s experience or the issue at hand. Instead of answering the limited question, the respondent can say “mu” or, “please ask a better question.” I want to say “mu” because inherent in this kind of question about recess and art class is that the most important thing about the school experience is increasing test scores. It presupposes the “right problem” and sets our minds to designing for a space pen without seeing that the question itself is limiting our possible answers.

You could replace ‘test scores’ with ‘high school degree’ or ‘college entrance’ or ‘good job’ and they all would be the same — the question itself presumes an outcome and metric that are not what we ultimately care about achieving, and substituting them as proxies is causing actual harm. The data suggests that across the board in schools kids are not thriving: in fact, they’re frequently disengaged and discouraged. Only 54 percent of students feel hopeful about their prospects in future school or their ability to achieve their goals; and, a full third of students (34 percent) report they are actually suffering[1]. Let me repeat that: over a third of students report they are actually suffering! That is potentially 17 million suffering children in our schools. My co-founder Nicole tells the heart-wrenching story of what this really looked like in her classroom here, which is why she eventually left teaching to work on changing the system.

I spent the last 7 years at Stanford on a quest to understand why our system is so often disempowering for the adults and students in it. Over the next several months I’m going to share 10 big shifts in our thinking we need to make if we’re going to achieve substantive change in education: all of them can be directly tied to us solving the wrong problem. We are often trying to solve the problem of competition (economic mobility) or attainment (test scores) or content knowledge acquisition, but none of these get at the full range of things we really want for the kids we care about, or for our society. If you have the wrong problem, even the most innovative solutions will fall short.

Getting the right problem in education requires asking better questions. For this, I love the notion from poetry and philosophy of “the beautiful question” and it contrasts well with the idea of “mu”. Instead of being restrictive, beautiful questions open our horizons, cause us to pause and reflect, and reimagine possibility. Poet David Whyte says, “these questions ask us to reimagine ourselves, our world and our part in it, and have the potential to reshape our identities, helping us to become larger, more generous, and more courageous, equal to the fierce invitations extended to us as we grow and mature”.[2].

In my research at Stanford and through our work at REENVISIONED, we are stepping back and asking more beautiful questions about what we want for our lives and our society by considering the full theory of change for schooling. You can think of an individual’s theory of change for schooling as operating on four levels:

1. What does it mean to live a good or successful life?

2. What is the ideal role of school in helping individuals create that life?

3. Does school do this for the children I care about?

4. If not, why not?

Reformers often jump to question 4 and propose solutions without knowing their answers to the first three questions. We argue with others about the merits of our innovations without understanding the levels on which we agree or disagree.

Often forgotten today is the fact that as a society we also need to add the questions of:

1. What kind of society do we want to create together?

2. What is school’s ideal role in helping create that society?

So far, we’re finding there is considerably more agreement than disagreement on the answers to many of these questions. You can see people’s stories and reflections here, and sign up to be part of the movement at Further, we’re finding that the conversation itself helps create a shared sense of vision rooted in our common values.

If we’re going to truly shift our system, rather than engage in a never-ending cycle of “so much reform, so little change”, we need to ask more beautiful questions, and say “mu” with more frequency. It’s only once we’ve identified the right problem that we can move on to getting the problem right.

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[1] Gallup. (2013). 2013 Gallup student poll: Overall U.S. report. Gallup, Inc. Retrieved from

[2] Whyte, D. (2014). Solace: The Art of Asking the Beautiful Question. Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press.