Schools as Problem Solving Communities: Education Through Righting Wrongs

What would it look like to re-imagine schools as problem solving communities? In reading about Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, I came across several wonderfully thought-provoking quotes including the following:

Nobody has any right to find life uninteresting or unrewarding who sees within the sphere of his own activity a wrong he can help to remedy, or within himself an evil he can hope to overcome.

I couldn’t help but apply this to my work and thinking about learning communities. Consider the countless problems and challenges in all of our lives, families, communities, and countries. Now imagine a school focused upon students learning by studying related problems solving of the past, analyzing and seeking ways to solve problems of the present, and trying to prevent or proactively address problems of the future. I’m sure that it could happen, but I find it hard to imagine a student saying that class is boring when that student is devoting her time to addressing a problem in the communities that is impacting her and her family in some important way. The work might be hard, even overwhelming at times. It might be frustrating. It might require enduring through tedious tasks. It would not, however, be uninteresting, and solving a problem would undoubtedly be rewarding. And if students are able to see that their work directly impacts the well-being of other people, the solution to important problems, I suspect that we would find far more students engaged and striving for more.

Imagine a science teacher reorienting the entire class around wrongs that need scientific knowledge to remedy. Imagine the same thing for a history class. Imagine students learning how the arts can be used to overcome or challenge evil in the world. Imagine a classroom or school where you could walk into any room and interview the students, and each of them could frame their work around the wrong that they are trying to right or the evil that they are striving to overcome.

These don’t always have to be massive global issues. We don’t need to have our 1st graders bringing peace in some distant, war-torn country. Yet, we can engage them in solving problems and issues in their sphere of life. As Eliot mentions in the quote, this is about seeing “within the sphere of his own activity” what problems need addressing. These could be surfaced by the students. They could be shared by parents and the community. Then we could design projects and experiences around trying to address one or more of them.

A single wrong or evil could occupy days, weeks, months, or even years of study and effort by students or groups of students. What started as a school project could blend into a life pursuit, maybe even some sort of career. The connection between school and life would rarely be clearer than with such an approach.

Of course, trying to solve problems calls for new knowledge and skill. Students might find themselves driven to solve some sort of problems that requires them to first devote time and energy to developing mastery in some field of study. That might even look like a more traditional class or learning experience for a time, but with a difference. Students would no longer wonder why. The famous “so what” question would rarely arise…or maybe it would be constant. Either way, relevance would be at the center of school, and students would be active and engaged in solving important problems.

Is it Time to Build a Birdhouse Without Nails? Educational Problem Solving

How do you build a birdhouse? What materials do you need? The answer to those questions will shape the look and feel of your end product? Maybe someone taught you a very specific approach. You need pieces of wood, nails, a drill, and a saw. You can change the type and lengths of the boards to create any number of birdhouse designs. What happens when/if your town has a massive nail shortage? Is it time to give up the birdhouse building? Are there other options? Have you ever Googled “coolest birdhouses” and then clicked on the images that show up? The varieties are brilliant and inspiring. There are birdhouses made of gourds, discarded plastic bottles, ceramics and pottery, taxidermy fish, tin cans, rope, bottle caps, old shoes, paper, cardboard, milk cartons, stones and mortar, wine corks, books, and popsicle sticks. Yet, they are all still birdhouses. If we keep our vision, mission and goals clear but allow ourselves to truly explore the possibilities beyond our current practices, we can find wonderful and often enlightening possibilities where we previously saw only saw obstacles.

Tools shape our thinking. They both expand and limit our sense of the possibilities. So do policies, traditions and procedures. I continue to challenge myself, policymakers, educational leaders, students and others to consider what this means for our visions of education in the 21st century. I’ve had rich conversations online and elsewhere about various educational challenges, and this is part of what brings me back to this idea.

Here is an example. I had a conversation on Twitter recently about the upcoming shortage of principals in the Lutheran school system, one of the largest parochial school systems in the world. Over the next five years, it is expected that 40% of the principals in these schools will retire, leaving a large leadership vacuum. How might we prepare for and address this shortage? The more we are tied to current models and practices, the fewer potential solutions that we will consider. What does it take to prepare a principal? Is a traditional graduate program the only option that comes to mind? What about alternative routes to training? What about online programs? How do we recruit more principals? How far are we willing to look beyond past approaches? Or, how about if we stretch ourselves beyond past practices? What would it look like to create new structures and models for school leadership? In this case, it turns out that the majority of these schools have a hundred or fewer students? What about various parent-led school models? What about various teacher-led school models? What about schools collaborating and discovering savings and solutions through some shared administrative services? What about a mix of these potential solutions?

By suggesting these other options, I’m not arguing that they are good or bad solutions. I’m only inviting a conversation that looks beyond the current practice and approach, allowing us to see solutions where we might have otherwise felt stuck, discouraged, or overwhelmed. Without doing this, we usually end up piecing together something that fits into our rather small world of possibilities, potentially missing out on a wonderfully rich and positive solution, or maybe eventually leading to complete failure. We often become so comfortable with a certain set of practices that we find it hard to believe that others are viable. We approach them with skepticism, possibly based on minimal or limited deep and informed experiences with the alternatives.

Here is another example from higher education. From the 1980s and on, there was a rapid increase in Universities that experimented with small off-campus center operations. Over time, there became an almost standard way of creating and running these centers. This is especially true in for-profit education, but also with many non-profit Universities. They had a certain number of staff that served a certain number of students. Recruitment strategies were largely uniform as as the selection of programs offered at these satellites or centers. These were flexible evening programs, close to home and ideal for many adult learners. Then enrolments started to decline in many of these centers…year after year. We saw countless centers close, with non-profits sometimes holding out a bit longer because they didn’t have as much overhead (as in no taxes to pay). Some just closed up shop and drove these students to their online programs.

Amid all these, we saw very few centers try to re-imagine what it means to be a center. Yet, a minority continued to grow and thrive by imagining new possibilities. Some shifted the focus from “selling programs” to students and instead becoming a partner in addressing the needs of the community and creating new educational opportunities based upon the goals and needs of prospective students. Others sought out partnerships with companies and organizations, becoming an education and training provider of choice and securing a more steady flow of students. Still others just closed their doors for good.

This same thing applies to almost every educational problem. There is the classroom teacher who feels like she is at a dead-end in addressing classroom management issues. There is a complex problem in re-designing the curriculum. There is a demographic of student who is consistently not finding success in the school. There is the educator who really wants to explore integrating technology but has what, at first glance, looks like a prohibitive budget. There is the parent who looks at the school choices available for his or her child and is troubled because none of them seem like a great fit. There is the school leader who is burdened by financial limitations or strict policies and mandates.

There are countless other examples in education. There comes a time when we face problems in learning organizations. We either lean on past practices and stay committed to past models, or we allow ourselves to add some creative and outside-the-box thinking to our problem-solving. In the startup world, this is the moment when a company might consider a pivot. The initial business plan, strategy, or product line is not working out. Either you need to figure out how to make it work, how to pivot into something else (closely related or completely different), or you need to think seriously about cutting losses and moving on. There may well be that time to cut losses in learning organizations, but I urge many to not be too quick for that decision. Financial challenges? How seriously have you explored the diverse approaches to funding available today? Personnel shortages? Are the current roles the only way of doing things? Are there ways to reconsider how we divide up and fulfill the core needs? Plummeting interest in what you do or provide? Perhaps it is time to set aside the nails and look for a new way to build a birdhouse.

Reflection Questions

  • What are the aspects of your organization that are truly non-negotiable? These are the things that, if you they are not present, your values and convictions drive you to say that it is no longer worth keeping the doors open.
  • What are the aspects of your organization that are important but they can be adapted, adjusted, even re-imagined in unexpected ways while still staying true to the organizational mission, vision, values and goals?
  • What are the aspects of your organization that are merely present? These are highly flexible and adjustable elements. They can and will change (potentially drastically) or even disappear, but your organization remains clearly focused on your same mission and vision?
  • What are the “scarce nails” in your learning organization? Are you willing to consider alternative materials? Allow yourself to brainstorm completely different “materials” to address the problem while staying true to your mission, vision, values, and goals.
  • Are you facing a problem where partial or complete pivot might be the solution?