Solving wicked problems requires novel solutions. And given the number of variables involved and the competing interests, it feels like most teaching problems of practice are wicked problems. Therefore, in order to solve these problems we are going to have to think differently. I am reminded of a passage from one of my favorite children’s books, Top Secret by John Reynolds Gardiner. In it, a boy is stuck on a problem for his school science project, his grandfather gives him sage advice:
“But I’ve tried, Grandpop. I’ve tried putting the pieces together. I just can’t seem to see the picture.”
“Have you tried thinking crazy?”
“Learn to think crazy, Allen. Let your mind go. Don’t be afraid to think of silly things, stupid things, things so ridiculous that you burst out laughing at the mere thought of them.” (Gardiner, 1999, p. 33)
One of my favorite tools for “thinking crazy” is the TPACK Mashup. We first encountered it in cooking with TPACK. I have been so taken with the practice that I actually designed an app to make TPACK-mashing easier. You can see a demonstration below and download the app here.
One way that I used this was when doing work for my Teaching and Learning Mathematical Problem Solving course. In one assignment, we were asked to use four different strategies to compare 6/9 and ⅝. The first few are obvious: fraction bars, finding common denominators. For me, music was an obvious choice, but even that wasn’t particularly exciting. I tried to find a way to hear and see the fractions, so I programmed each fraction as a beat and then recorded them in Audacity. Then, by looking at the soundwaves, you could really see the difference.
And this is an important note about the role of passion and curiosity in pursuing these solutions. The first answer is rarely great, but it already sounds like “the answer” to us. It takes passion and curiosity to stick with a problem long enough to get rid of the obvious solutions. I was really struck by the four reasons Berger (2014) cited for why people avoid fundamental questioning:
- It feels counterproductive
- It never feels like the right time for questioning
- Asking the right question is difficult
- We may fear finding there is no good answer to important questions
This is all especially relevant to teaching. Where the numerous variables, trade-offs, and competing interests make it nearly impossible to arrive at best solutions. And the time available to teachers to think and problem solve is so limited. Problems in education are wicked problems, there is little consensus on best solutions and where there is there is always a hesitancy to enact them as it is feared that moving one gear out of place in this massive machine will send the whole thing crashing down.
But this course has really made me commit to asking these questions. And sitting with them. And trying best bad solutions. Because it is the way we move forward. And it is the way we improve education. And, although my reserves occasionally get depleted, I have the curiosity and passion to carry on.
Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.
Gardner, J. R., & Simont, M. (1999). Top secret. Place of publication not identified: Sagebrush Bound.
Kjorness, C (2018, February 22) TPACK Masher Demonstration, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCigh12T-Vs
Kjorness, C (2018, February 10a) Comparing Fractions: 6/9 and 5/8, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCigh12T-Vs