The Power of Posing Problems

This TED video is the jumping-off point for this entry:

This video prompted the following comment on the TED website:

  • John Burrell 2 hours ago: The teaching profession are falling over themselves to embrace the ‘new paradigms’ advocated by this teacher, repeated by amongst Ken Livingston and written about by Steven Johnson + the endless retweets on Edchat. Each and everyone of these individuals places a greater value on ‘creative thinking’ than on content to the extent that they wish to see content abandoned. Yet the process of producing a new synthesis requires that the student be able to connect their new ideas to the old, this is to give the new idea value to others. Content is still king! It allow the connections to be made, it is the basis of synthesis and the bed rock of creativity. Unconnected thinking with no reference point has no value and would perhaps be better characterised as madness. Content still matters. Gardner covered all this in ‘Five Minds for the Future’ (sic)

The reason I share this video and particular comment (there are many other comments as well) is because it nicely (and, some may argue, too simply) illustrates the shift taking place in North American schools right now.  The shift is one where the traditional emphasis on content is moving to an emphasis on conceptualization and problem solving.  Content is cheap (Wikipedia); a problem solver is worth millions.

I take issue with this video’s comment.  The issue I take with the comment is not because I feel that content is unimportant but because it values content incorrectly.  Content in our current economy performs the function that bricks and mortar play in the construction of a home; they are fundamental tools required for the proper completion of the task at hand.  Like content, however, they themselves are not the task at hand.

I was once asked which World War was “…the one with the Nazis” by a high school graduate.  Being a person who sees this kind of thing as important, I was surprised that someone would have to ask.  It was, however, an honest question and I answered it as such.  This example says a lot about exactly what can go wrong in instruction.  This person knew that there was more than one World War and he was aware that there was a group of people named Nazis involved in one of them.  These bits of important content were floating about in his mind like remnants of flotsam following a U-Boat attack.

Why?  He had no reason to put them in the correct place.  The problems of his life did not require him to know which war the Nazis were in so he didn’t know it.  I knew it because it was my job to know it.  If I would have asked him to properly seat a restaurant during the dinner rush hour, though, he would have been like Ike on D-Day plus 1.   Being able to do this would be arguably more profitable in his immediate life than would be knowledge about a relatively distant international conflict.

For those who may at this point fear that I am merely suggesting that all education be vocational, I propose caution.  This is where I will return to what I believe to be the message of Ms. Laufenberg’s talk: traditional content is more effectively communicated and better understood by teachers posing problems to their students in a way that forces them to create something larger than the sum of its parts.  Teachers must ask their students what they can do with content in the same way that most of their future employers or clients will ask them to do.  I would wager that if you think back to one of your favorite times in school, it would involve the agency and excitement with being entrusted to pull something off.  I would further wager that you would remember exactly which order you’d do things in and what you’d do differently if you had to do it again.  Building a volcano, making an infographic, organizing a volleyball tournament, and writing an opinion paper all require a person to summon a variety of skills and knowledge into one time and place in a way rote memorization of which war had the Nazis never can.  How would I get this person to remember which war had the Nazis?

I’d ask him how he would have prevented their rise to power and see what he comes up with.  That’s a problem worth solving.