Since the economy started sputtering four years ago I have noted a particularly interesting trend. With businesses shedding jobs, prospects for college graduates looking generally dimmer than a decade ago, and a housing bubble largely inflated by the banking system pretty clearly at the bottom of our troubles, we have created a new class of heroes, heroes who in our wish-dream mythology will set the economy back on track as surely as ever Superman changed the course of mighty rivers.
These heroes are entrepreneurs. We even want our students and our teachers to become entrepreneurs, and we want our schools to foster the entrepreneurial spirit through their curricula and focus on doing what entrepreneurs do: they solve problems.
The cleverest entrepreneurs, of course, solve problems that we didn’t even know we had, and of course along the way they make billions, unless they are “social entrepreneurs,” in which case they simply save the world. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I generally take some convincing before I am convinced that some new product or service is going to make the world a morally or ethically or even materially better place. I am a big Apple fan, but I’m not ready to give into the idea that my lovely, useful MacBook Air is somehow righteous. It’s just a well designed computer.
But I digress. Many schools these days, if you poke around in among revised mission statements and strategic plans, are all about problem-solving, assigning collaborative teams of students to develop solutions to problems, some hypothetical and embedded in the abstractions of traditional curricula and others authentic, “real-world.” Training problem-solvers is what we aim to do.
I’m all for this. I love the collaborative approach, and I love turning kids’ brains and creative spirit loose in pursuit of solutions to the problems that beset our world. I’m even okay if somebody makes a buck or a euro along the way.
But there’s something about the language that has changed. We only seem to talk about problem-solvers, no matter how vast or thorny the problem. It is as if our language has become grandiose in proportion to the actual complexity and actual stakes of the problems we face. Global warming? Our kids’ll get it solved! Conflict in the Middle East? Solution on its way! As optimistic as I want to be, as much as I believe in kids, somehow it seems a tiny bit arrogant and disingenuous to claim that our students are going to be able to solve problems at every level—even before they’re out of high school, yet!
In 1999 Ted and Nancy Sizer addressed the issue of vast, thorny, deep, and complex problems in the first substantive chapter of The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract. Rather than make the claim that schools can just decide to whip up a new generation of problem-solvers, the Sizers call forth a wonderfully old-fashioned term to describe the process by which students (and teachers) learn to tackle problems: grappling.
In truth our students (like ourselves) may not solve every problem. What we want to students to develop, in fact, is the habit of mind and heart of grappling, of wrestling with complexities not until they achieve a decisive pin (hopefully as entrepreneurs) but rather until they become intellectually and personally comfortable with facing the complexity, ambiguity, and sheer intractableness of some of life’s challenges.
Rather than proclaim that we’re training students to solve every problem, maybe it’s time for a little truth in advertising: let’s start proclaiming that our students will be prepared to grapple with problems of all sorts, prepared to do the critical analysis, the research, and the creative thinking required to frame big problems and to begin to understand how they might be fruitfully approached. We can also provide learning experiences and environments that ensure that our students will be unafraid to do the work this requires.
In a recent article in Rotman Magazine* Anita McGahan writes about the need for business schools to create “problem-solvers for the world.” I think this is a worthy goal (although I think that graduate schools of arts and sciences, law schools, divinity schools, medical schools, high schools, vocational schools, and middle and elementary schools should be included), but the essential step along the way is to train kids in the art and science of grappling. Problem-solving is an activity, but grappling is the essential mindset (if you will) that underlies problem-solving, characterized by optimism and the desire to move beyond current limitations.
So before we exalt problem-solving as the ultimate educational goal, let us take a good hard look at the ways we, er, teach grappling. For the Sizers, it’s a combination of modeling, honest discourse, tough intellectual toil, and above all helping students become comfortable with living with ambiguity and complexity. We teach students to grapple when we ourselves eschew glibness or banality and acknowledge that many of the things that we must think about, do, and even teach and learn are hard, inchoate, messy. There is not always a way out of messiness, or at least a way that is apparent to children and their teachers, but avoiding messiness or denying its existence is no solution at all.
We know that not all complex or ambiguous—some experts like to use the term “wicked”—problems are going to be easily solved. But they can be approached, analyzed, grappled with, perhaps until their complexities are resolved and their messiness brought under elegant control some day. The next generation of “problem-solvers for the world” will have been students trained to wade into this process with confidence and not just narrowly taught some algorithm to come up with tidy solutions.
We’re in love with business-speak these days, and we’re especially in love with business-speak that carries an attitude and a message of “can’t fail”—our IPO, whatever it is, will solve the problem, dominate the market, make us rich. But we’re educators first and foremost, and so let’s step back and focus on (I’ll say it again) mindsets and dispositions, on the fundamental and necessary attitudes we must help students to develop before they can become full-on global problem solvers, let alone entrepreneurs with a hope of success.
Talking about problem-solving, and problem-solvers, is fine; so is the aim of developing an entrepreneurial spirit. But the Sizers remind us to take this work back to first principles, to the grappling at the heart of all problem-solving.
*One of the many virtues of Rotman Magazine, produced by the very forward-thinking minds at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, is that issues are thematic. For Spring of 2012, for example, the theme is nothing less that “Wicked Problems,” with articles focused on strategies for approaching the gnarliest dilemmas. The Fall 2010 theme was “It’s Complicated.” Together these issues provide a first-rate primer in how organizations and individuals approach difficult problems—a great readable boot-camp for grappling.