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Admiring Problems

I came upon a pile of articles recently in my attempt to regain control of my study/office. (“The Animal School” that I posted last week was an artifact of rediscovery in this process.) These were articles and required readings for a course on curriculum development that was imbedded in my Masters of Education Administration program. It was very nostalgic to leaf through these pages. They were certainly relevant to the topic at hand, and I found an appreciation and fascination with the instructional path the professor was creating by assigning them. I recall that I found this class to be particularly timely, meaningful and applicable to my work as a fledgling administrator; which may be why I kept all of these brittle pages.

What I haven’t yet divulged is when these materials were written. The date in the lower corner of these photocopied pages from scholarly journals was typically 1988-1991, with some significantly older than that. I was awarded my degree in 1993, so these were, at that time, relatively current resources.

I’ll admit to being shocked that so much time has passed by, holding these pages that were published thirty years ago. Recovered from that revelation, I quickly recognized that the topics were relevant then and are still relevant now. We’ve been discussing the same issues, admiring the same problems for thirty + years.

Let me state that again. We’ve been discussing the same issues, admiring the same problems for thirty + years!

How can it be that a community of informed and intelligent members, professional public educators, continue to be perplexed and preoccupied by issues that have dominated the spotlight for thirty, or more, years. (Seventy years when you consider the original publishing date of The Animal School.)

Why are we stuck?

One of the articles I pulled from this pile was one titled Introduction: Opening Mental Locks. Despite my efforts, I could not determine the precise original source. It appears to be the work of Dr. Roger von Oech, resembling his book on creativity, originally published in 1983, A Whack On the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative. So, in an effort to give credit where it’s due, I do not claim any ownership of the views expressed within the italicized quotes below, assuming them to be Dr. von Oech’s work.

“It’s no longer possible to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.”

Yup, that is a quote from this thirty plus year old article. It was true then, it is true now: “It’s no longer possible to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.” Yet, that’s largely what we continue to do.

I can’t give an accurate accounting of the number of times I was engaged in a problem solving conversation, either as a participant or the facilitator, where the understood, and often expressed sentiment of confidence, was “the answer is in the room.” I can confidently estimate that over the course of my career this occurred for me well over one hundred times. What a compliment that is - an expression of respect for the professional expertise of the participants, their creative potential and their individual and collective interest in doing the right thing. Frequently, in my experience, the final result proved to be disappointing.

I cite an example of this from the chapter of my book, The Education Kids Deserve, on failure and grading.

“With some regularity, I would bring student achievement data to my teaching staff for them to examine for any observable trends or patterns. I had high levels of trust, respect and affection for my teachers. However, I was frequently disappointed and perplexed by their reaction when I would ask: “Are there any instructional implications suggested by this data?” Rarely, did they identify any professional practices or appear to care about considering their involvement in the reported outcomes. It was clear that they saw the information as student data only, and they could readily identify student shortcomings as reasons for what was in front of them. Homework completion, attendance patterns, engagement in class . . . a fairly lengthy and predictable list of ‘if only’ responses would unfold. It became clear that my teachers were unable, or unwilling, to see themselves and their practices in the data. I pushed against this on numerous occasions, at sizable risk to the relationships I had with, and within, my faculty.”

This begs two questions. 1) What are we so afraid of? 2) What gets in the way of our ability to be innovative and creative?

Returning to the ancient article I assume to be Dr. von Oech’s, it suggests a list of issues that get in the way of creative thinking and problem solving; the causes of which are termed “mind blocks.” “As you can well imagine, it’s difficult to get your creative juices flowing if you’re always being practical, following the rules, afraid to make mistakes, not looking into outside areas, or under the influence of any of the other mental locks.” Examples of mind blocks are listed:

  • “The Right Answer”

  • “That’s Not Logical”

  • “Follow the Rules”

  • “Be Practical”

  • “Avoid Ambiguity”

  • “To Err Is Wrong”

  • “Play is Frivolous”

  • “That’s Not My Area”

  • “Don’t Be Foolish”

  • “I’m Not Creative”

Now think back on your experience, the conversations you’ve been engaged in. How many times have these excuses derailed any meaningful or forward action? And, then realize, unfortunately, that it’s happening still.

If this article is von Oech’s, he offers a couple of significant ideas that continue to ring true. First, “the attitudes that create mental blocks have all been learned. We need the ability to unlearn what we know.” And, finally, this: “Most of us have certain attitudes which lock our thinking into the status quo and keep us thinking ‘more of the same.’”

We lock our thinking into the status quo.

It’s safe to suggest that Dr. Von Oech may have offered useful insight in addressing the second of our questions: what gets in the way of our ability to be innovative and creative?

Yet, the first question remains. What are we so afraid of?

There are some other nuggets of wisdom in that pile of old paper that might shine some light on this dilemma. Sadly, many of them are as relevant today as the day they were written.

We fail to recognize or acknowledge that kids today face far different challenges and exist within markedly different circumstances than students did decades ago. We also tend to overlook that what society expects of today’s students barely resembles the requirements of yesterday. Being generous and assuming that we perhaps know these things to be true, our profession is running the risk of engaging in willful malpractice by continuing to ignore the truth.

We must drop the comfort of complacency and our fears of failure or ridicule, and get on about the business of addressing current dilemmas with current solutions. America’s kids can’t afford for us to continue admiring the same old problems for another thirty years.

“The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind

to spot wrong questions.” -Anthony Jay


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