By Rabbi Barry Kislowicz
The Problem with Problem-Solving
Newspaper headlines declare it. Blog posts discuss it. Parents, students, and teachers worry about it: American schools today face many challenging problems. We struggle with issues ranging from limited resources to lackluster achievement. It is only natural that dedicated teachers and educational leaders seek solutions for these problems. This is the nature of school improvement, and at first glance seems to be just what we need. Ironically, however, it may be that this problem-solving approach is exactly what prevents us from achieving true change.
Consider some of the ideas that have transformed our lives in the 21st Century. The iPhone was not invented due to our pressing need for more selfies, Facebook was not created because people struggled to keep in touch, and – for that matter – the automobile was not developed because of problems with horses. These paradigm-shifting ideas are precisely the kind of game changing improvement we need in our schools today. Game changers do not come from individuals trying to solve a problem. Game changers are created by people who expand their framework beyond the problem at hand to craft a new vision.
This vision-creation approach may seem risky or naïve to schools facing today’s crises and the accompanying challenges to morale. As educational leaders we must indeed be prudent. At the same time, the sense of security which we provide ourselves by engaging in limited tinkering and problem-solving will often prove to be false. In truth, “the greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark” (Robinson, 2009, p.260).
Dreaming and Teaming
Our school recently made a conscious transition from problem-solving to vision-creation as a framework for school improvement. While we are only in the early stages of our process, we have seen very promising results. Reflecting on this new approach, we can distill the key elements necessary for its success.
We often focus on a single visionary, such as Steve Jobs, at the heart of a revolution, but effective vision-creation on a school-level is based solidly in a team approach. To create a vision, we must first build a team. This team should consist of key instructional players within the school such as administrators and veteran teachers. Unlike traditional strategic planning, the vision team should also include carefully chosen unusual suspects such as student-teachers, non-teaching staff, parents or even students. Unusual suspects broaden the team’s perspective, spur more creative interchange, and help the team reexamine its assumptions (Brafman and Pollack, 2013).
It is not sufficient to simply bring our team members into the same room. Rather, we must carefully help the team to coalesce. A wide variety of team-building approaches can be helpful at this stage, but it is a stage which cannot be overlooked. The sort of team-building approach which we choose must take into account the work which we hope the team will engage in together. To prepare our team to create a vision we must help them become comfortable with dreaming, exploring and taking risks together.
Playful team-building activities which gently pull members out of their comfort zones may be particularly useful in this regard. These activities do not have to be entirely divorced from the task at hand. Armed with a box of crayons, one of our team’s first activities was to draw a graphic representation of our ideal educational experience. While none of our drawings will be hanging on anyone’s fridge, sharing our illustrated hopes and dreams expanded our perspective and gave us the comfort to take more risks in dreaming together.
Despite our desire to make immediate changes, the process of team-building, like any relationship, cannot be rushed. While teams tasked with solving a problem must work together pragmatically, our team will require a deeper level of synergy for the creative process of building a new vision. Creative teamwork cannot occur without the foundations of comfort, respect and effective communication. The time and effort we invest in establishing these foundations will open new vistas as our team begins their work in earnest. In our team’s work, we found that in the beginning stages members were unwilling to risk making innovative suggestions and instead opted for safer, more modest ideas. Once the team had come together, members were comfortable proposing new approaches to scheduling, class frameworks, grading practices, and more.
Beyond enabling our team to coalesce, there are additional reasons to move slowly and delay our typical rush to solutions. Problem-solving is a reactive approach which takes its cue from the environment. Therefore, it is essential to keep the problem front-and-center during the planning process. In contrast, vision-creation is a proactive approach which sets its own agenda. We must allow our team to attain distance from the problem at hand if we want them to think beyond the confines of their current limitations.
Leading educators have long argued that the process of backwards-design is the key to effective teaching and learning (McTighe and Thomas, 2003). Strategic thinkers have likewise argued that the key to successful change is to “begin with the end in mind” (Covey, 1989, p.96). In our case, this means allowing the team to begin by crafting an ideal vision of long-term goals based on ideals instead of focusing on short-term solutions.
To create an effective vision, the team must keep the school’s core educational values and philosophy front and center while ignoring – in the beginning – the practical problems and challenges of the reality around them. In many schools, core values and philosophy are already well-crafted. If not, the team’s first step will be to create a quick-and-messy version of those central ideals. These core values animate our hopes for a school’s future, but in many cases we do not truly believe we can actualize them for our own students.
The vision team’s challenge will be to push aside pragmatic concerns to craft a concise representation of what their school would look like if it did actualize all of these ideals. Depending on the team, this representation may take the form of a narrative, graphic, digital or video portrayal. Whatever form it takes, it is essential that it encapsulates the core vision in a clear and emotionally relevant manner.
As it is shared with an ever-expanding circle of stakeholders, this representation should elicit feelings of hope and potential. Fellow teachers, administrators and parents need to be inspired by this vision. Our team knew that we were on the right track when a school board member who had read our narrative asked if he himself could enroll, when a new teacher asked how she could get a job in a school like the one we had described, and when a grant-making agency asked how they could help bring the vision to life.
Back to Basics
Sharing this representation with other stakeholders creates the opportunity to engage them in the planning process. As we do so, we are likely to hear more about the potential dangers, challenges and obstacles that lie between the school and its new vision. Or, as our team was asked by that same school board member, “Can you really make this happen?”
Having stepped back from reality to craft their vision, the team is now ready to transition back to the pragmatic planning process that is more familiar to many of us. Yet rather than using strategic planning methods to solve current problems, they will employ these methods to chart a course backwards. Just as a teacher sets learning objectives and then scaffolds to support student growth towards those objectives, the team will begin with their ideal vision and roll that vision back one stage at a time until it meets their current reality. They will highlight the key obstacles that must be overcome to move from one stage to the next. They will also incorporate strategic approaches to these challenges based on their own assessment and in collaboration with other stakeholders. They may also need to add team members as new expertise such as financial planning or political strategy is required.
As the pragmatic planning process begins, there will be a temptation to dilute the original vision in light of implementation challenges. But we should not be too quick to let ourselves off the hook. Instead of adjusting the vision, the team can adjust the timeline. If it is impossible to achieve this vision in three years, it may be possible in five or ten. Ten-year forward planning may be unheard of in the world of education, but devoting a decade to achieving a dream would be time very well spent.
Slow and Fast
If it has been formulated correctly, the vision will inspire and motivate stakeholders. At the same time, the pragmatic planning process may yield an implementation timeline spanning multiple years. At this point, the team is faced with a crucial question: How can they maintain stakeholder motivation for a process that exceeds the attention span of most?
One crucial approach, very well suited to follow the vision-creation process, is that of short-cycle experimentation favored by many entrepreneurs (Reis, 2011). As educators, we like to wait until we are completely prepared before taking the first step. But that is not how babies learn to walk. We learn to walk by taking the first step before we are entirely ready, falling down, learning from the experience, and then trying again.
We should view our implementation in the same manner. It is the team’s task to provide a relatively safe option for short-cycle experimental implementation. This may take the form of using volunteer early adopters, implementing the vision for only a small percentage of the students, or limiting initial pilots to select subject-areas or times of day. For example, some schools have chosen to make major adjustments to scheduling and course format, but to limit those to a few weeks a year (Lichtman, 2012). This approach to change allows for greater freedom to experiment and an efficient way to test early theories. It also keeps stakeholders engaged and inspired as they see the first iterations of the vision coming to life.
Our team’s initial goal was to craft a vision to improve our school. What we have noted along the way is that engagement in the process itself serves to motivate and re-energize administrators, teachers, students and parents. Moving from problem-solving to vision-creation not only enables us to see where we are headed, it also gives us the inspiration us to get there.
Brafman, O., Pollack, J. (2013). The chaos imperative. New York: Crown Business.
Covey, S.R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Free Press.
Lichtman, G. (2012, September 5) Time and place lead passion for innovation at Hawken School. www.grantlichtman.com/time-and-place-lead-passion-for-innovation-at-hawken-school/
McTighe, J., & Thomas, R.S. (2003). Backward design for forward action. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 52–55.
Reis, E. (2011). The lean startup. New York: Crown Business.
Robinson, K. (2009). The element. New York: Penguin Books.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.
Rabbi Barry Kislowicz, Ed.D., serves as Head of School at Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland, OH, and is deeply invested in continuing professional learning, research and collaboration with educators across the country. He can be reached through www.linkedin.com/in/bkislowicz.