When the Toaster Doesn’t Work: 4 Tips for Addressing Educational Problems

My family and I ate a continental breakfast at a hotel the other day. I grabbed an English muffin, put it in the toaster and pressed down on the lever. Nothing happened so I tried again. When that didn’t work, I checked to make sure it was plugged into the outlet. It was, so I tried a different outlet. Still nothing. Oh well, I didn’t really need to toast my English muffin. I sat down and enjoyed the rest of my breakfast. A few minutes later I overheard a person talking to someone at the front desk, asking if there is a breaker that needs reset. That was the problem. In fact, the person at the desk explained that this happens all the time. As I listened to the conversation, I looked over at the toaster, broadened my view and noticed that the refrigerator, waffle iron, coffee maker and several other appliances were all powerless and in the dark. I was a bit embarrassed given that much of my work has to do with big picture thinking, strategic planning, educational innovation, ideation, etc. I spent the next twenty or thirty minutes playing with this experience as a way to think about how we address problems and issues in education. Here are four lessons that I gleaned from this little thought experiment.

2. Broaden Your View

Sometimes we get confused by a problem. It is often based upon a current want or need. Focusing on that problem alone, we miss that it is part of a larger or systemic issue. Until we broaden our view, we are not going to see the that larger issue. Anything we do to address it based upon our narrow viewpoint will fall short, So, when you experience a problem, find a way to step back and look at the bigger picture. Even if you can’t fix that larger problem, this perspective can help you manage your own work. Too often we just jump to the educational equivalent of buying a new toaster when the problem is in the wiring.

2. Think of the Next Person

When the toaster didn’t work, I tried a couple of things, but then decided that it wasn’t a big deal, so I let it be. The front desk was ten feet away, requiring minimal effort to tell someone about the problem. Instead, I ignored it, resulting in the next person still having a problem. In fact, since it turns out that the issue was a breaker and not the toaster, my decision not to let someone know delayed a solution. When you run into problems, at least tell people about it. You are helping everyone by doing that. You may prefer to just do without or ignore it, but it isn’t just about you. Think of the next person, and the twenty people after that. Great organizations want to know what is working and what is not so they can improve. Help them out (especially when you are one of them).

3. If There is a Persistent Problem, Do Something About It

The words of the person behind the desk keep coming back to me. “Oh, yes. This happens all the time.” If it happens all the time, why not do something about it. Too often, we get used to living with the problems in our organizations. Sometimes it is because we tried to solve it and it was too expensive or time consuming. Sometimes we convince ourselves that it is someone else’s issue. Other times we just don’t get around to it. Regardless, this has a way of building a culture of mediocrity. Even if you don’t have the resources for your luxury solution, help build a culture that identifies and promptly addresses educational problems.

4. Make it a Team Effort

We all get tunnel vision sometimes. Even if you consider yourself the best systems thinker or problem solver, there will still be moments when you miss the obvious. That is why we want to get different people involved in exploring the problems in our learning organizations. When possible, get the perspective of diverse stakeholders. Don’t just lean on the experts because expert bias can prevent you from some of the most exciting, innovative, or even obvious solutions. This is not just about getting different perspectives at the table, however. It is also about having the ears to hear, and the humility to accept that another person’s perspective is sometimes more helpful.

What are the “broken toasters” in the education sector today? What about in your organization or your personal approach to teaching and/or learning? Maybe one of these four tips will help find a solution.

2 Replies to “When the Toaster Doesn’t Work: 4 Tips for Addressing Educational Problems”

  1. Patty Young

    I love your thought experiments Bernard! Turns out the toaster problem brought all kinds of solutions to folks! Thanks for sharing – love it!

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