Monday, January 31, 2011

Go Figure

For most of us, to teach is to present and explain new material, to demonstrate its application, and then to provide opportunity for students to try it out and receive feedback and guidance. It never occurs to us that there may be other approaches, let alone approaches that are much more effective.

How many times have you heard someone insist that she can't do something because, "no one ever showed me how to do it" or that he doesn't know what to do because the current situation doesn't exactly match any of the scenarios he'd been taught to handle. The idea that one must first be taught to do something before doing it is pervasive, it's crippling, and it's not limited to would-be frie-station attendants at MacDonalds. Many doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, PhDs and other professionals lack the ability to comprehend, diagnose or ascertain the answer to problems that they haven't seen previously.

Figure It Out
One alternative to the explain/try approach is the scenario/solution approach. Rather than explaining a method or technique and then providing guidance on how to employ it, you present a problem and provide a set of tools and aids without explanation of any solution save for the requirements that a successful solution must satisfy. You provide a kitchen full of dirty dishes and cleaning implements to a group planning to cook; you provide a bag of 5 apples, a cutting board and a knife to 12 hungry kids; you provide bicycle with a flat tire, tire-irons, a pump, patches and a bucket of water to someone ready to ride.

The students then, working together or individually, solve the problem using the tools that are available to them.

Framing the Problem
Another challenge in most educational systems is that teachers and writers of texts are far too anxious to frame the problem. Given a repeatable method, solving any problem is easy as long as it has been presented in a manner that makes it clear which technique to use and how it applies.

However, in daily life, problems rarely come packaged in a manner that is completely framed. Math problems don't come in the form of "what is A plus B" or "what is 20% of 450?" Instead they come in the form of the oft-dreaded story problem (except with even fewer hints). For example:
Sally is having a party to which she has invited seven friends, three girls and four boys. She asked each of her friends what they would prefer to eat: hot dogs or hamburgers.

Two of the boys said that they'd like one of each, one of the boys said he'd like to have just a hamburger and the other that he'd like to have two hamburgers. Each of the girls said that they'd like to have just one of what the boys like most. Sally wants two hotdogs. Drinks, one per person, are $1.25 each. Hamburgers are $2.37 each and hotdogs are $1.89 each. At 17.5%, how much does Sally need for tip?
The above is already framed out pretty well and yet many of us would be scratching our heads somewhere in the middle of its presentation.

It would be easy to walk through and divide the above problem into simple steps of addition and multiplication. There's no advanced math required; the techniques are not difficult. However, framing the problem (translating it into those simple steps) is where most of us would fall down. We'd fall down simply because we'd never spent that much time doing it.

What Is the Problem?
Of course, the biggest problem facing most would-be solvers is the question, "What exactly IS the problem?" A side-effect of pervasive, gratuitous problem-framing is that graduates of our formal education systems have always been taught to solve problems that were clearly formulated and presented. However, in the day-to-day world it's not often clear what exactly is the problem.

When a child who can't communicate gets angry or starts crying, your problem might be his anger or crying, but what is his problem? What is the root cause of the anger or crying? When an accountant determines that a business is netting less money month by month, his problem is the business running out of cash, but the question is, "Why is the business netting less each month?"

When a car won't start... when a piano goes 'thud' when you play a middle C... when your dinner guests suddenly get up from the table and leave... when your heart starts racing in the middle of the night... when you can't find your keys (again)... What is the problem? Sure, there's the immediate challenge, but that's not the root of the problem.

In short, we're terrible at finding root causes. Why? Because we're rarely taught to find root causes. In fact, we're typically provided the cause and taught to discern which method or technique to apply and how to apply it.

Ask, Ask, Ask
In the end, as teachers and parents we want to provide environments in which students must learn to discern and frame problems and then figure out solutions. When we do, they not only learn more, they learn better (unlike solutions that have been memorized, a solution that you've figured out cannot be forgotten.)

One of the first steps is to simply answer questions with other questions. When someone says, "Hey, thus-and-such just happened and I'm not sure what to do?", rather than providing an answer you could ask, "Well, what would you do if there were no one to ask?" and then "Why would you do that?" or "What do you think would happen if you did that?"

Help the student work through her own process of figuring out situations by asking questions.

In some instances, you might start with helping diagnose and frame: "Why do you think that happened?" or "What do you think caused that?"

If you're instructing people on playing the flute, after each student plays, you could ask others about his technique. How did he hold his flute? Did it look comfortable or uncomfortable? How were his lips shaped? How would you describe his sound? How would you compare his sound to her sound? How were they the same? How were they different?

By asking questions like these, you help students discern technique without ever presenting technique.

In short, if you want teaching to stick and to optimally beneficial, ask, don't answer.

Start-up Costs
Of course, waiting for a nubie to figure something out takes time (sometimes a lot of time), and there are times where getting done is more important than learning. However, the time spent in teaching someone to diagnose, frame and figure out pays for itself over the long haul.

Go figure?

Happy Monday,


  1. Amen and Amen. I homeschooled my daughter and that was my goal. I didn't want her to memorize data--it always changes and you can always find it. I wanted her to learn the way to find the questions that would lead her to the answers she would need. ..It makes all of life an adventure--a treasure hunt and now, at 33 she still can find her answers with self-assurance and joy.

  2. Gerri,
    How great that you were able to provide that kind of environment for your daughter! Isn't it cool that she can feel comfortable and confident in the absence of "knowing" the answers.

    If you were going to provide five tips for parents based on what you've found worked, what would they be?

    Thank you for your comments and inspiration.



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