The Three Steps to Problem-Solving

Every day, I see school problem-solving efforts started and stopped, and started again and stopped again. Or they meander, with no one being sure exactly what should be done first.  Or one person burns out after carrying too much of the load.  Or projects fizzle out because they lose shape and the people involved lose track of who’s supposed to be doing what.  The English teacher in me wants to quote Yeats:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

That’s one of the most ominous lines of poetry ever written.

There are so many good ideas for solving what-seem-to-be-intractable problems whizzing around schools, but so few turn into anything actionable.  I see good projects implode at three times: the start-up phase, the refinement phase, and after it’s been running for a bit– the “loss of inertia” phase. I’ve found that there are three steps that need to be taken when problem-solving.  Following them, I think, can turn a good idea into action, and keep it up beyond the honeymoon, when everyone’s excited over what’s new.

1) Collaborate

We as a society are miles beyond the need to address our problems on our own.  We work in schools with dozens of professionals, and hundreds or thousands of kids.  We can connect to other teachers and school leaders through email, Twitter, Diigo, wikis, Facebook, and an endless list of educational journals.  There is great wisdom in crowds, as James Surowiecki and Francis Galton know, and solving problems together harnesses the brainpower of everyone involved.  I had been a life-long individual problem-solver, and until recently I wasn’t convinced about the wisdom of crowds.  But after working on deep, entrenched problems like achievement gaps, outdated curricula, and ineffective, teacher-centered instruction, I’m convinced that one person can’t do it all, can’t see every possible solution, and can’t have every experience on which to draw.  There are giants on whose shoulders we can stand, and there is great power in collaboration, networking, and teamwork.

2) Articulate

Teaching vocabulary and literary devices made me see the power of articulation.  My students could always read definitions, but not until I forced them to put things in their own words did they truly grasp what an unusual or complex word meant.  The dictionary definition for irony always fell flat, for instance– but try articulating it in your own words, and it becomes understandable to you.  Or try poetry.  Or metaphor— and you can’t use the phrase “without like or as.”

Until you can articulate exactly what’s wrong and exactly how you think it should be, you can’t effectively work on a solution.  Putting things into words has power– witness anyone who’s ever written down their thoughts in order to see how they really felt about something (Author’s note to himself– insert mirror here).  Articulation lets collaborators define the problem, map out specific solutions, and be on the same page in their efforts.  This might be the hardest of the three steps, but it’s the fulcrum on which the others hinge.

3) Sustain

Good problem-solving efforts are only as good as they can be sustained.  If you’ve created a wonderful student rewards program that has students reading like never before in exchange for points they can redeem for more books, you’ve created every educator’s dream.  What you haven’t done is make sure that the program continues once you leave the school to become an administrator, or a writer, or a teacher somewhere else.

So how do you ensure sustainability?  The best way is to find ways so that more people have a stake in the project.  If it’s just you, you are the project.  If a group is responsible for the work, there’s more structure and stability.  If everyone is invested in the solution– here’s why school-wide buy-in is so essential– the solution can be more intractable than the problem once was.

Another provocative line from Yeats’s poem is

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

If that’s not enough to motivate you, what will?  Problem-solving is never easy; every school has unique challenges and roadblocks to get through before success.  But we must be up to the challenge, and find not just the necessary passionate intensity, but the kind of systematic collaborating, planning, and following through that changes the unchangeable.



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2 responses to “The Three Steps to Problem-Solving

    • marcmancinelli

      Thanks for the comment… I think I meant inertia because I defined it as the resistance of a body in motion to changes in motion. Like, you might say, “The inertia was hard to change because there was so much momentum.” But if you’re a physics guy, by all means, correct me!

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