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What is a problem?

Posted by on Sep 20, 2011 in General | No Comments

Our router hasn’t been working the way it was supposed to. We are a paperless school. That is a problem.

But what kind of problem is it?

It’s partly technical: figuring out whether the router has capacity to do what we need it to do, and whether it’s configured correctly. This is mostly beyond our (and our students’) capacity to solve. We needed help.

But it’s also organizational, and here’s where it gets complicated, and interesting. Suppose for a moment you had two teachers and 29 students, and you handed out this activity:

Your class is beginning an online research activity. Each student has a laptop. As students go online to access their documents and begin research, some are disconnected from the server. It appears that the first students who logged on are also the first ones to be disconnected.

As a class, figure out how you will complete the research assignment. Outline your strategy for solving this problem, and explain your process.

This has a lot of the characteristics of a good problem-solving activity. It’s an open ended problem with multiple solutions, it requires collaboration and communication, it has a tangible end product with externally measurable criteria (did the strategy allow students to complete their research assignment?), it allows for trial and error, and it builds in time and opportunity for reflection. All in all it could have been a morning well spent.

But we didn’t spend it that way, for the most part. While our students have been patient and cooperative about our technical difficulties, it’s largely been us that have developed work-arounds, contacted various IT supports, and worked toward solving the problem.

Why? Because our students have other projects that they are working on: past and future maps, college essays and presentations; developing and articulating core values and expectations for the school – expectations that will shape our work throughout the year. It’s important work.

Being at the Workshop gives us the amazing luxury of time and flexibility. If our students are deeply engaged in meaningful work, we can adapt the schedule to extend that activity. We can also adjust in real time if something isn’t working. But having that luxury also makes us keenly aware of all of the possible roads we could go down, most of which we won’t. Our time, however flexible, is not infinite.

Our learning together requires a lot of planning and structure, along with room for surprises and detours, student input and feedback. One of the things we’ll try and figure out as the year goes on is how to determine which detours are worth taking, and why.