The two key ingredients of real problem-solving

A quick word about dissent.

During a recent conversation with a teacher-friend I we stumbled into an area of conversation that allowed me to see dissent through the lens of leadership and problem-solving in a way that I hadn’t before.

Acceptance of dissent isn’t a new idea in leadership. Lots of writers talk about the need for leaders to appreciate it… here’s an example.

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another on of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.”

– Michael Fullan (From Leading In A Culture of Change, 2001, pg 74.)

We were talking about problems that tend to have some pretty zealous advocates. For the sake of exploring a concrete situation, I’ll choose one for an example. How about student retention? This is a topic that can bring some energy out of some folks. It’s an important conversation, too. What happens when a student finishes a school year without meeting the minimum expectations to complete the grade/course they are in?

To push them forward would mean pushing the student forward into academic challenges that they likely aren’t prepared to tackle.

And making student repeat grades has just not been an effective solution according to ASCD, Education Week, John Hattie, etc…

So, when a district sits down to really solve this problem, they need to accept that they probably are going to need to choose a third option. Carelessly moving the student on is probably a poor choice. Making the student repeat the grade is also a poor choice.

The better option, the third choice, the one that will work better, is likely going to have to be crafted on site and with the resources available helping to guide the process.

This is where I began to see the need for two very distinct groups of people.

One group of people creates the boundaries… I’ll call them the idealists. These are the people who say, “We can’t retain them. We can’t. I don’t care what we do, but we aren’t retaining them. It doesn’t work.” Every issue has these people. Most of us can become these people when the issue at hand strikes us right. Luckily, they seem to be essential to the process. They also happen to be very frustrating to people who either disagree or just don’t see the issue as important.

The main issue with these folks is that zeal often doesn’t really solve problems. It creates boundaries for the solution, but (in the case of our example issue) simply eliminating retention doesn’t actually solve the problem of students falling behind. It just eliminates a series of potential solutions.

So, we need to bring in the dissenters… I think of them as the holders of the “yeah, buts…”

“We can’t hold them back.”

“Yeah, but they are still behind in their learning, so we can’t just move them on.”

Now… at this moment… as long as neither the idealist or the dissenter storms out of the room, the real problem-solving work can begin. The boundaries are set, the reality checker is in place and now the focus can turn to the ACTUAL problem In the case of promotion v. retention, it’s the fact that students are making it to the end of the school year not ready to move on.

And that takes some deliberate focus and patience. The zealous boundary-setters don’t want to hear about “yeah, buts…”. The dissenters tire quickly of the perceived inflexibility of the idealists. But I’m not sure real solutions to tricky, messy problems are more likely than when these folks can unify around a common goal.

American education (shoot, American culture as a whole) has a whole variety of problems that we are having trouble solving because the zealous idealists and the persistent dissenters have such a hard time embracing the valuable contribution that each other makes in the course of creating real solutions.

But real solutions… solutions that are effective and sustainable… probably require the active presence of both.

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2 thoughts on “The two key ingredients of real problem-solving

  1. Forgive me if I am wrong, but the American public school system seems to put a full range of kids in each class, with the obvious consequence that some will get bored because they can do it all, and others will continue in their state of mystification from one year to the next. This would appear to be at the heart of this problem. “Oh, but we have to do it that way, equality of opportunity”. This is rubbish. Where is the equality when you have students ill prepared for “the next grade”, who are going to continue in that state or worse as the years go by. “Oh, but that’s how the Common Core is supposed to work”. It patently obviously doesn’t.” . In the UK kids are grouped according to some measure of their ability/achievement and treated appropriately. ” But what about ‘grade level’?”. I could go on……

  2. Great post! I am sharing this with my principal. Real problems exist in a school and you are so right. We have to listen to each other and do the hard work of finding solutions that work for our situation.
    Diana

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