Saturday, February 6, 2010

What's the Problem?

Kumu Keahi, a friend and teacher in Honolulu, gives a lesson to his students about his "Problem-Solution Algorithm-Matrix." I'm not sure exactly if I have the hyphens in the correct places, but you get the idea. The goals of this lesson are many, but the most important bit is the end, where he implores students to be leaders because it is leaders who act, rather than simply sitting back and arguing or contemplating forever.

Keahi says there are five steps to problem solving, and ties each to a level of thinking and development. The steps are as follows:
1) Recognize that there is a problem - "This is something even a cockroach can do," Keahi says. "You turn on the light, and the cockroach says, 'whoa, that's a problem,' and scurries into the corner."
2) Identify the problem and its source - This is, as I recall, high school-level thinking. More on that in a second.
3) Enumerate possible solutions - This, Keahi says, is more college-level thinking.
4) Select a solution - You can see where this is going; this is graduate school-level thinking.
5) Act - Here, of course, is where Keahi springs the leader bit on his students. Those previous levels do not mean that you need to go to grad school, because leaders are the most important thing.

I don't think Keahi means to insinuate that we should act without doing a good job identifying problems or selecting solutions, because it is something of a truism that action without reflection or strategy often results in making things worse. It is no accident, too, that educated people often struggle to act, because one of the marks of education is a recognition that simple solutions - solutions that are easy to act upon - often have unintended consequences. A simple example would be the standards movement in education: standards were designed as a way to make sure every student was reaching a certain baseline of knowledge. The real outcome, however, has been a high-stakes, test-based system that reinforces socio-economic boundaries rather than blurs them. That was never the intent, but it has been the outcome.

While I think Keahi's lesson is quite valuable for teenagers, I'm not convinced the problem-solving process is actually so linear (nor am I convinced that Keahi would claim it is). The second step, in particular, is trickier than it seems. Identifying the problem is a matter of much nuance and skill, and in fact failure to so properly is the cause of many failed solutions.

The "" at Stanford believes in user-centered design, and emphasizes identifying the problem, not by simply contemplating, but by asking users. One might cynically suggest that this kind of design thinking leads to "discovering" problems that don't really exist (consider the Snuggy, or any other infomercial product) by mis-emphasizing needs,* but on the whole it's a fairly good system. There's a certain attractive subtlety in asking users what they want, and then comparing their words with their actions and emotions to determine their needs.

* What I mean is, it's easy to watch someone with a blanket and decide that they really don't want to get out from under it when answering the phone. Indeed, the person might even be able - with prompting - to articulate this need. More interesting, however, are the unarticulated needs that are perhaps subtler and larger-scale. I believe the would be interested, not in reinventing the blanket, but in reinventing the phone. But I don't really know. Either way, you can see that defining the problem here is tricky; which is why it is treacherous to let marketing decide the problem for you.

User-centered design, however, does not always work in education. Indeed, formal education would not exist if the "users" (students) could articulate their needs. Educators believe, by necessity, that they not only have material that students need to learn, but that the students will not be able to identify what that material is on their own. That might sound draconian, but think of it this way: what second grader would choose, of his own free will, to learn to read, to write, to do arithmetic, and to share? Perhaps those things would come naturally by contact with a literary, mathematical, and socially complex culture. But perhaps not.

As we get further along - as students are given more choice in the form of "elective" classes - there remains an external push for students to continue taking math, English, foreign language, and - in some blessed schools - art and athletics courses. While much could be said about how those courses fail, it seems fair enough to say that educators as a whole have a better sense of how important those subjects are to future happiness and success. From the other perspective, there are many students who wish they'd paid more attention in Spanish class. There's a certain irony here: students only realize how much teachers have their best interests in mind after they're out of school. Regardless, there seems to be general agreement that teachers can identify the problems of education better than the "users" can.

The contrarian in me, however, wants to point out that this has lead to an under-emphasis on student opinion. A great deal of education research and policy concerns teacher practices, administrator opinions, community biases, impersonal standards, and parent involvement. Where, in all of that, are the kids? User-centered doesn't have to mean students know what they need to learn. It could, alternatively, mean that students have a good sense of why they aren't learning. Indeed, they might have more to say about themselves than tests ever could.

The challenge, here, is that students have a hard time articulating what they dislike about school. What's the problem? School sucks. That's not a good dialogue. Rare is the researcher who, like Dr. Denise Pope at Stanford, decides to follow students around and comes up with a mutually agreeable conclusion.

Pope's Doing School highlights one of the great many problems in education - and this is the bigger issue; there is never only one problem. Where much research focuses on what's wrong, Pope's research question was the opposite: what's going right at good schools, and with good students? She followed around five students over the course of the year, shadowing, doing interviews, and avoiding teachers, parents, and administrators. She wanted the student perspective, and she got it.

What did she get? Well, she went in trying to find out what was right, but she saw instead something deeply wrong. All of these "excellent students" she followed were unhealthy and unhappy. They cheated. They competed mercilessly with their classmates. They never actually remembered the material they were meant to be learning. They were, in short, "doing school."

In a competitive education system, it's easy to look at the people who fail. Competition necessitates failure,* and it is easy to see the racial and economic biases that predict that failure. Many education researchers and reformers, therefore, target the failing schools. What they ignore is the successful schools and successful students where, as Pope discovered, students are miserable, and not learning a thing.

* And don't you forget it. A great deal of hand-wrangling is done over "failing schools." Standardized tests are designed to produce a curve. Schools, in short, are supposed to fail. Either policy-makers who make a big deal of this are very clever, ignorant, or both.

I know, I know. Poor kids! They aren't happy! But they still get to go to Harvard and Yale and make a good living when they're older. Ah, but that's the issue, really. They are not really being prepared to succeed later in life. While there is perhaps some corporate value to employees who know how to "do school," there is also value in students who love to learn. Indeed, beating the love of learning out of students - teaching stress, frustration, and cheating instead - produces future employees who don't know how to work together, who are wary of each other's success instead of doing good work themselves, and who are afraid to be creative and take risks for fear of losing their secure spot. Companies across the country are complaining that there aren't enough good employees graduating from America's schools, despite the fact that school admissions are getting more and more competitive. So how do we define the problem?

I've looked at one particular issue here, but hopefully you can see how this is much broader. In any social structure there are almost always problems, but defining those problems can be very difficult. Indeed, there are often contradictory problems at play, or problems that are contingent upon a certain ideology (for example, the price of health care might seem a problem to one person but not to another, depending on ideology).

At the moment, I am meant to be identifying a "learning problem" to design a solution around for my Master's project. This, I'm finding, is a terribly complicated process. There are so many problems, many of which interrelated, that it makes narrowing difficult. I'm not worried about finding something - indeed I can see a great many small-scale things I could work on - but I am worried that whatever I do settle on will be either too broad or too narrow. I feel I need, more than anything, a broader sense. While I might articulate a small, sub-problem, I still need to define the big problem that most motivates me, and I find myself vacillating on that issue continuously. I might as well ask why I am in education at all. My answer is to multitudinous to define in a sentence.

The burden of complexity is that it is, well, complicated. "What is the problem?" is too simple a question.

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