Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Defining and Solving the Right Problem

Too often, we don’t take the time to define and solve the right problem in schools. Because we have great intentions, we jump right to possible solutions instead of being thoughtful about defining the specific problem to solve. We treat most problems generically and solve them with new books, new software, new policies, or even new teachers or new leadership.

In my district, we treat low student achievement like a dartboard, and throw everything we have at it, without taking the time to define the specific problem to solve. We have no shortage of solutions, but we rarely stop and focus on defining the specific problem we want to solve. 

Solving the right problem means taking the time to think about the root cause of the issue. Edwin Bridges, one of my graduate school professors, taught me how to define a clear problem statement, without jumping right to solutions. He offered this as an example of defining the right problem. Initially, the homeowner decided in advance that the solution to his garage door problem involved repair. By not taking the time to define the actual problem, the homeowner essentially threw solutions and money at the dartboard and hoped one would stick. Identifying the actual problem, led to an easy cost-free solution.

A man lived in a neighborhood south of San Francisco. His garage door was opening at odd times throughout the day and night. He threw money at the problem, calling for a repairman, changing parts in the opener, all without success. The garage door continued to open and shut randomly. Some time later, the man was at a neighborhood barbecue, where in conversation, he learned that several of his neighbors were experiencing the same problem with their garage door opener. This new information reframed the problem entirely. Now the problem was that many garage doors were opening and shutting at odd times. This new information led the man down an entirely different path He learned his neighborhood was on the flight plan for airplanes landing at the San Francisco airport. One airline used the same frequency for landing as the garage door opener. With this new knowledge, the solution was to simply switch the channel on the back of every garage door opener, changing the frequency and ending the problem.

In my urban district, we face another hindrance to defining the right problem. We allow the real socio-economic problems we face to cloud the issues of teaching and learning. The fact is we are teaching in a community that is extremely poor. Our students are hungry sometimes, they are coming from single parent homes, students are working long hours after school to help support their families instead of doing homework. Our students do not speak English at home, and they come from families that have not experienced academic success of their own in the past. These are facts. But they have nothing to do with what is in our control and that’s the daily instruction we are responsible for offering daily. These socio-economic factors certainly effect our students, but they do not mean we cannot reach students instructionally. But I am involved in so many conversations where teachers point to these factors as reasons students cannot learn. To be clear, there’s no question these factors influence student learning, and more often than not the influence is negative, but socio-economics are not a reason we cannot offer specific instructional support to our students.

Somehow, the culture in my school district allows us to believe that good teaching is a mystery. A good teacher either has it, or doesn’t. The “It” factor is hard to name, and impossible to define and teach. We treat good teaching like it occurs in a fog or a haze behind the curtain. While many teachers may have innate teaching ability, the truth is teaching is like any other skill. Practice, lessons, and learning make the participant better.

This is a difficult conversation in my district. If good teaching is a mystery, then successful student learning must also be mysterious. Some students get it, most don’t, and neither the teacher, nor the student is to blame. Instead, let’s blame Poverty, that nameless, faceless creature prevalent in urban schools. The result of this culture and construct is that we plow through content and students either get it or they don’t. In this construct, all our students fall into several distinct categories. They either learn something the first time-these are the smart kids, are behavioral problems-these are the bad kids, or are compliant kids- these are the nice kids who will pass regardless of whether or not they have actually learned.

We have to change this culture. Instructional practices and interventions to increase student learning can and must be named. If we articulate clearly the problem we want to solve; what is it students need to learn to understand this concept, and we teach it, and reteach it, student learning can and will improve.

Thanks for reading-Happy holidays to all.