The Problem Finders

Find the right problem, shape it, and THEN solve it

In September 2011 I gave my first (and maybe last!) TEDx talk in London, on something I believe passionately about, and something I do not believe we’re getting right, at scale, in schooling.

It’s a linguistic nuance that requires significant changes in a teacher’s pedagogy, approach, way of thinking and way of of collaborating. It’s a change that we’re enjoying working through with hundreds of educators on at NoTosh, throughout Australia, the Far East, Europe and, from next year, the USA.

Not on the video, now released by TEDx, is the pledge I was asked to make:

I pledge over this next twelve months to help 10,000 young people discover a problem-finding curriculum, through the development of confidence and skills in their teachers.

Well, with some help from some friends, we did manage to get 10,000 young people discovering a problem-finding curriculum: and we did it in 21 days.

We’re working every week now with schools across the world in building The Design Thinking School, a pedagogical framework that borrows from enquiry-based learning and problem-solving curricula to bring new meaning and relevance to students, and we’re finding that such a framework works regardless of curriculum, country, culture or language. In independent schools with parents wanting top marks, in city schools where students are disengaged, in suburb schools were students are successful but bored… in every case it’s leading to more engaged students and better academic performance, in both elementary and high schools.

I’ve been lucky enough to see our education system from several sides. I’ve been a teacher, an education advisor for government and I’ve worked as a talent spotter for TV companies and digital startups in the creative industries. I’ve noticed something in the way that we teach our young people that has a negative knock-on effect on their very ability later in life to contribute to a creative, sustainable world. With my teams of educators all over the world I’ve also seen the impact of a simple mindshift that every teacher in every classroom can make.

When I worked with the television corporation, my job was to seek out ideas that people had come up with and invest in them. The key: they had to find a problem that no-one else had solved. Out of 3000 ideas, this past three years, I think I’ve recommended about 30 of them. That means that our most creative people have about a 1% success rate in finding problems that need solving.

Currently, the world’s education systems are crazy about problem-based learning, but they’re obsessed with the wrong bit of it. While everyone looks at how we could help young people become better problem-solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem finders.

I’ve discovered just how many per cent of our learners are working in a problem finding curriculum. This summer, I met Simon Breakspear, a young educator from Sydney living in Cambridge. He told me that the biggest headache he had in his current venture was finding a problem that no-one else had looked at. He went on to point out that he had never had to find a problem like this until this very moment, 25 years into his life. Simon was part of the one percent of us who undertake that bastion of quality learning: a PhD.

Another educator and good friend, Alan November, told me story a little later this summer. He once taught a Community Problem Solving course where, on the first day, he set students the task of finding a problem in the local community that they could then go off and solve using whatever technology they had available.From the front row a hand shot up. “Mr November?” began one of the girls in the class. “You’re the teacher, we’re the students. It’s your job to come up with the problems and give them to us to solve.” This was in 1983.

All our students, their parents and the people teaching them, have been indoctrinated that is teachers who sift through all the things we can learn, find the areas worth exploring, and make up theoretical problems for students to solve. On top of this, most educators believe that it is their job to invent problems at just the right level of difficulty to appeal to every one of the 30 children in front of them.
So we see this disingenuous belief that framing fake problems in different coloured books (the pink ones for the clever kids, the yellow ones for those “who need support”) is the best way to create problem solvers.

It is not.

Teachers, for too long, have actually been doing the richest work of learning for their students. Teachers find problems, frame them and the resources young people can use to solve them. Young people get a sliver of learning from coming up with ideas, based on some basic principles upon which the teacher has briefed them, and the teacher then comes back on the scene to run the whole feedback procedure.

How about something different?

In the classrooms in which I work, students explore the twenty or so themes upon which our planet really depends, immerse themselves in the ideas and information their teachers, peers and whole communities can impart, find the problems they feel are worth solving, theorise which ones will work and then try them out in a prototype. In their world, we don’t just write an essay or create yet another wiki or blog to describe what our idea is, but we actually build the solution to the problem with our own hands — in this case, these seven year olds built the world’s youngest TEDxKids event, and talked about their research and solutions to some of the world’s most pressing — or simply most interesting — problems. Do animals talk? Do babies have a secret language? Which cancer should we invest in curing first? Why do slugs needs slime?

Others in a Brisbane primary school we’re working chose to explore living for 24 hours without technology to immerse themselves not just in what makes technology so vital, but also the challenges and problems to our wellbeing that technology brings.

It takes courage for a teacher to let go of the reins of learning sufficiently to inspire problem finding where no textbook, teacher or standardized test knows the answer, where the teacher’s voice is but one of 30, 300 or 3000 others chipping in, guiding, coaxing and coaching through the ether. But this kind of learning surpasses the depth of thinking demanding by any traditional textbook, teaching or standardized test.

I began with a story about my friend Alan’s class, his students protesting that “he was the teacher, and they were the students”. Well, he persisted. After a year of problem-finding, those students insisted on the school opening up over the summer vacation so they could continue to find problems and solve them. When a new computer arrived, a student broke into school over the vacation — he didn’t break in to steal the computer, but to practice coding it. It’s rare we hear of students breaking into school to learn. But, I guess that’s what problem-finding does to people.


Originally published at edu.blogs.com on November 29, 2011.