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OnWords: Houston, We Have A Problem

coach_robbo / Flickr / Creative Commons

I have learned to avoid the word “problem.”

Today, we prefer terms like “challenges,” and “opportunities,” perhaps “concerns” if the situation is really dire. But almost never do we admit to facing “problems.”

This shift away from the word problem has gotten so pronounced that a former colleague of mine was once accused of being “negative” when she pointed out some serious shortcomings in her department's course offerings.

Apparently, the word problem has, itself, become a problem. But for as much as we avoid the word, we obsess over problem-solving tools, almost all of which begin with clearly defining what the problem is. As we do this, we cite the old adage, “A problem clearly defined is a problem half-solved.” Some tools even go so far as to claim that you should first define the problem in a solvable way prior to taking part in some brainstorming or action-steps or what-have-you.

These problem-solving approaches are fine when the main goal is to report back measured outcomes on achievable goals, but when we define problems in this way, we often forget about what caused the trouble to begin with.

For example, just about everybody accepts that the problem of “student achievement” can be measured by looking at kids' performance on standardized tests. However, the basic problem educators face is not “achievement” on a test but preparing students for the future. And the future is full of unknowns.

By defining problems only in terms of what we can measure and test, we lull ourselves into a false sense of security, only to be surprised when problems come up again in different ways: in the case of education, people who find themselves unprepared for college, for jobs, for citizenship, for the vagaries of daily life.

And anyway, experience tells us that problems are just as often solved through no system at all, but by accident and unexpected inspiration, when our minds are occupied with something else. And how can you measure that?