Question-Driven Problem Solving
People with “all the answers” must not get asked good questions very often. Good questions cause you to pause, digest, and respond with more questions rather than immediate answers.
When presented with a problem worth solving, a series of intentional question-asking steps can be helpful in guiding your thought. Particularly, Warren Berger suggests a “why,” “what if,” and “how” method (Berger, 2014). Examining a problem first with “why” can help to create a deeper understanding of the problem. Why are things the way they are? Once you’ve clarified the actual problem, “what if” questions can help to determine what some possible solutions might be. What if things were this way instead? In casual thought, most of us stop there. We identify some possible solutions and then move on to our next problem, because it seems daunting, we don’t have the time, or we’re scared of failure (Kelley & Kelley, 2013). The people that are actually out there solving the world’s problems are the ones willing to go beyond the “what if,” and start to meaningfully engage with the “how.” How could we actually do this?
In a school, problems arise all the time that might have relatively simple solutions, but issues of time, tradition, and governance often discourage faculty and staff from getting far beyond the “why.” We can all identify a chronic “why-er” or two in our workplaces, probably more often referred to as a whiner or complainer. Perhaps you’ve even experienced an occasion when a “what if” is posed to a “why-er,” and they seem to check out - uninterested in actually pursuing a solution to their “why.” Particularly in schools, where there are plenty of problems to solve, we need to stop coalescing around the whys, and move toward the what ifs and hows.
I want to encourage those of you who are engaged by the “what if” and “how” questions to put aside concerns about whether you might be “allowed” to pursue solutions to your given problems, and to adopt a rebel spirit. Rebels typically aren’t “up to no good” - rather - they’re simply pursuing solutions that don’t fit inside the box. Often times it’s the rebels that are the innovators and the world-changers. They don’t worry so much about the outside constraints of their role, and the pursue what it is that engages them in the best ways they know how. (NPR, 2018)
I’ll present one example of a subtle “rebel” activity that turned out well for me. In my school, we have quarterly report meetings, in which we spend a whole day working our way through each grade, trying to talk about every kid in the school, and spending more time on students that might be having a tough time for one reason or another. While faculty dutifully report to these meetings, and collectively acknowledge that it’s good that we have them, they can be long and somewhat dry, particularly when you don’t actually work with the students being discussed. Some of the “why” questions that came to mind for me were, “Why is it hard to follow along in these meetings?”, “Why is hard to get a sense of who a kid is if we don’t work with them?”, and “Why don’t we use technology to help guide these meetings?” It seemed to me that it was hard to follow along because when you inevitably drifted into an unrelated thought and then came back, there was no visual indicator of who we were discussing. The options were to pretend you knew what was going on, or to bashfully whisper to your neighbor, “Who are we talking about?” It was hard to get a sense of who a kid was because there was no context provided beyond a hard-to-read single-page spreadsheet printout of all the kids in the grade, and all of their grades for the marking period. We didn’t use technology because there wasn’t an obvious tool readily available, and because we had “always done it” this certain way. My “what if” questions were, “What if there were a way to see who we were talking about? What if there was a way to get a little more texture on who they are? What if we could use technology to pull this information together in a meaningful way?”
Of course I'm not suggesting that it’s “easy” to learn how to build a custom web dashboard - my background is in computer science, and it was a challenge for me. What I am suggesting is that when you identify a problem, use your background and resources to the best of your ability to get beyond “why,” and get started on “what if” and “how” - regardless of whether you’ve gotten specific permission to do so. Once your “rebellious” act solves a problem, it suddenly becomes an innovation.
Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.
Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: unleashing the creative potential within us all. First edition. New York: Crown Business.
NPR. You 2.0: Rebel With A Cause. (2018, July 24). Retrieved August 16, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=631524581
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Nate is the Director of Technology at the Roxbury Latin School