Another dot in the blogosphere?

Three problem-x approaches

Posted on: July 3, 2014

I have been chatting with various education stakeholders over the last two weeks. When they ask me questions or when we discuss issues, I find that I solidify thoughts that would otherwise float in my mind. To anchor and test these ideas, I have decided to blog about them.

The first is a set of three concepts: problem-solving, problem-seeking, and problem-creating.

When most organizations try to innovate, manage change, or improve learning, they go into problem-solving mode. It is the most logical and obvious strategy to take.

If taking student attendance is tedious administration, schools implement check-in systems. If teachers do not know how to use classroom technology, staff developers look for vendors to provide training. If students cannot get into local universities, private education institutes provide alternatives. See a problem, solve the problem.

If a problem is obvious, one or more solutions will be too. More often than not, the solutions will be safe, standard, or expected.

For example, if a problem is that university faculty are averse to integrating technology, potential solutions include implementing sweeping policy that affects learner feedback on teaching, faculty appraisal, and curriculum design. This has been tested over time, and even when policies are combined like threads of a rope, results fail to materialize. The plans look very sound and good on paper, but the reality on the ground is that there is little buy-on or ownership.

Fewer organizations go into problem-seeking mode. Even fewer try problem-creating. I think these two strategies are more likely to lead to innovation and change.

I chatted with representatives from two corporations with designs on increasing their share in the education market. I suggested that they might put some energy into problem-seeking first. This could mean finding out what issues their stakeholders were having and addressing root needs instead of superficial wants.

For example, one group was thinking of revamping its online platform because it felt outdated. See a problem (old feel), solve that problem (new feel). But I recommended that they problem-seek by getting learner feedback on usability, learning experience, user needs, etc.

Another group wanted to penetrate an already stubborn or saturated mainstream schooling market. I suggested that they seek opportunities in our shadow schooling system (the tuition industry) or the special needs market. Both are under less central control, can turn like little boats instead of ocean liners, and can get special injection of funds to gain an edge or to provide a valuable social service.

The bravest way to innovate or ring in change is to problem-create. I am working with a higher education school that has opted to repurpose its lecture theatres because attendance is low and today’s learner does not stand (or sit) for lectures. This creates a problem for their staff who are only used to mass and small group lecturing. They will be brainstorming for solutions and I will be there to help them generate solutions.

I label this a brave strategy because it can feel like the equivalent of burning your old house down before building your new one. For that matter, you might even question the need for a house. There is no turning back and you are more likely to think and operate outside the box.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then trouble-making (an alias of problem-creating) must be the father. Think of me as a person who ensures they have a happy marriage and well-adjusted kids.

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