September 18, 2011

Ewan McIntosh #TEDxLondon: The Problem Finders

The Problem Finders
I don't normally write out talks before I give them, but to get a point and a passion across in six minutes, I went through the exercise for TEDxLondon. There will be a call to action later this week at In the meantime, this is the talk I gave:

I’ve been lucky enough to see our education system from several sides. I’ve been a teacher, an education advisor for governments and I’ve worked as a talent spotter for TV companies and Venture Capitalists, working alongside digital startups in the creative industries. It's through the lens of these last encounters that I’ve noticed something in the way that we teach our young people that has a negative knock-on effect on their very ability later in life to contribute to a creative, sustainable world. With my teams of educators all over the world I’ve also seen the impact of a simple mindshift that every teacher in every classroom can make.

Success rates of the creative industries
Over the past four years I've sought out ideas that people had come up with and invest in them. The key: they had to find a problem that no-one else had solved. Out of 3000 ideas, this past three years, I think I’ve recommended about 30 of them. That means that our most creative people have about a 1% success rate in finding problems that need solving.

Currently, the world’s education systems are crazy about problem-based learning, but they’re obsessed with the wrong bit of it. While everyone looks at how we could help young people become better problem-solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem finders.
And I’ve discovered just how many per cent of our learners are working in a problem finding curriculum.

This summer, I met Simon Breakspear, an educator from Sydney living in Cambridge. He told me that the biggest headache he had in his current venture was finding a problem that no-one else had looked at. He went on to point out that he had never had to find a problem like this until this very moment, 25 years into his life. Simon was part of the one percent of us who undertake that bastion of quality learning: a PhD.

Alan November
Another educator and good friend, Alan November, told me story a little later this summer. He once taught a Community Problem Solving course where, on the first day, he set students the task of finding a problem in the local community that they could then go off and solve using whatever technology they had available.From the front row a hand shot up. “Mr November?” began one of the girls in the class. “You’re the teacher, we’re the students. It’s your job to come up with the problems and give them to us to solve.” This was in 1983.

All our students, their parents and the people teaching them, have been indoctrinated that is teachers who sift through all the things we can learn, find the areas worth exploring, and make up theoretical problems for students to solve. On top of this, most educators believe that it is their job to invent problems at just the right level of difficulty to appeal to every one of the 30 children in front of them.

So we see this disingenuous belief that framing fake problems in different coloured books (the pink ones for the clever kids, the yellow ones for those “who need support”) is the best way to create problem solvers.

It is not.

The teacher does the learning
Teachers, for too long, have actually been doing the richest work of learning for their students.
Teachers find problems, frame them and the resources young people can use to solve them. Young people get a sliver of learning from coming up with ideas, based on some basic principles upon which the teacher has briefed them, and the teacher then comes back on the scene to run the whole feedback procedure.

How about something different?

TEDxKidsSland Peer Support
In the classrooms in which I work, students explore the twenty or so themes upon which our planet really depends, immerse themselves in the ideas and information their teachers, peers and whole communities can impart, find the problems they feel are worth solving, theorise which ones will work and then try them out in a prototype. In their world, we don’t just write an essay or create yet another wiki or blog to describe what our idea is, but we actually build the solution to the problem with our own hands – in this case, these seven year olds built the world’s youngest TEDxKids event, and talked about their research and solutions to some of the world’s most pressing – or simply most interesting - problems. Do animals talk? Do babies have a secret language? Which cancer should we invest in curing first? Why do slugs needs slime?

Others in a Brisbane primary school we’re working chose to explore living for 24 hours without technology to immerse themselves not just in what makes technology so vital, but also the challenges and problems to our wellbeing that technology brings.

It takes courage for a teacher to let go of the reins of learning sufficiently to inspire problem finding where no textbook, teacher or standardized test knows the answer, where the teacher’s voice is but one of 30, 300 or 3000 others chipping in, guiding, coaxing and coaching through the ether. But this kind of learning surpasses the depth of thinking demanding by any traditional textbook, teaching or standardized test. The teachers and learners I work on problem finding with say it's the most rewarding learning experience they've ever had.

I began with a story about my friend Alan’s class, his students protesting that “he was the teacher, and they were the students”. Well, he persisted. After a year of problem-finding, those students insisted on the school opening up over the summer vacation so they could continue to find problems and solve them. When a new computer arrived, a student broke into school over the vacation – he didn’t break in to steal the computer, but to practice coding it. It’s rare we hear of students breaking into school to learn. But, I guess that’s what Problem-finding does to people.

I pledge that before the end of 2011 I will help 10,000 young people discover a problem-finding curriculum, through the development of confidence and skills in their teachers. If you want to be part of that journey, help add the next 10,000 problem finders, or come up with ideas about how we can help young people find more worthwhile problems, please add your support.


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Great, great talk yesterday. Thanks for looking at some of the practical issue of bringing on the education revolution. I shall certainly be pursuing your problem finders curriculum. Very useful for my music classroom.

Thanks again, Ewan for sharing this and for your excellent talk yesterday. I'm pledging to (amongst other things!) get on board with @katzy and help you reach the 10,000. :)

Epic post.

I come from a design background - I studied product design at university, and in our final year, we were required to complete three projects, as well as our dissertation. The first came from a brief which each student selected from the range offered annually by the RSA. The second was based on a broad theme from which we could define our own project. The third was completely self-directed, with nothing more than a deadline given to us.

I suspect my head of department would have a wry smile reading this, as it's probably the very reason why the course is shaped like it is, but by the end of the third project, it was abundantly clear to me that figuring out that 'first bit' - figuring out the problem I wanted to tackle - was such an important part of why I enjoyed the two later projects so much more than the first.

I now work in the design industry for an agency that deals with several multi-national companies. The projects that make me grin - the ones that make me get into work early and that tick over in my head even when I'm at home - are the ones when an organisation wants us to work from first principles, and find them the problem - or equally, the opportunity - that we can design from. The rest... well, I'm always looking for the problem they haven't seen.

So yeah, I completely agree with what you're saying. I know how satisfying problem finding can be, and how much it leads you to learn in a uni or work environment - I can only imagine how great it would be to be taught in that manner from a younger age.

For what it's worth, you've got my support.

Really great talk. However you prepared it must have worked well as it was very effective in giving not just a call to change, but spelling out how this change could be implemented and showing examples of how it had worked.

For me you pulled together many of the themes of the days talks, as I explained on my blog:

Totally in support of your pledge, as I have seen how powerful this kind of learning can be. In my new role as teacher of teachers I will be supporting this aim however I can.

This kind of work exists on a number of levels in a number of places. I find the Challenge Based Learning process to be quite similar to what you suggest. Unfortunately these experiences are far too episodic and disconnected. Interestingly enough it is also very similar to the process a multimedia journalist goes through when searching for a story.

It is sort of a daily scientific method. You must find the big subject, do rapid broad research, define the problem and select a specific story, conduct specific research, collect information, interview, select the appropriate medium, tell the story, publish the findings and reflect on the process.

In my mind at least multimedia journalism bolstered by a broad tool box of communication technology and presented to an authentic audience via the web and mobile technologies should be a part of every core discipline.

Ewan, I'm curious to see your talk as it was delivered and in the answer to this question: are you planning a new curriculum here or an 'uncurriculum'? (I can imagine the latter will be difficult to sell to schools!)

@Doug - It's not an uncurriculum, as the method for making this work involves the kind of retrospective planning and curriculum mapping exemplified by St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh (

@Dave - I'm aware of problem-finding happening in pockets everywhere, and I referred to the hundreds of teachers we're working with on this around the world. It is absolutely the scientific method, but in most children's experiences this method got knocked out of their learning under the pressure to deliver content to pass tests. I'm absolutely arguing to bring it back, but not just in science or craft, design and technology. I want to see methods we know work in these 'subjects', working across the whole curriculum.

Thank you, Ewan. I started on this journey after reading Making Learning Whole by David Perkins. He, too, talked about the importance of problem finding. I still have a long way to go, but I would like to offer these opportunities to my students. I'm using visible thinking in my classroom which strengthens the collaborative environment and works well with project learning. Count me in.....

Interesting idea here - ripe for some critical development if ya don't mind:

Problem 'finding' suggests that the problem exists out there. But he's well hidden. And if (A) you've got the right glasses on and (B) you know where to look, perhaps you'll find him. Magnifico.

Say hello to his cousin: problem 'creation'. She's a bit less glasses and map, and a bit more isometric paper and angle grinder. Her problem didn't exist until she hacked it. But now it does. And as with all her other great constructions it demands solving. Just ask Fermat.

The problems to be found are limited. The problems to be created are limitless.

Something to chew on. Or maybe spit out! Either way see you Thursday

Wow, wonderful. Thanks you, good idea!

Great article Ewan.

I think we need to provide a relevant curriculum based on real life issues that engages our students - issues of substance. I think too often we assume our students are interested and give them a prescribed curriculum. When we do this, we undervalue the level of engagement that is truly needed. We need to challenge our learners by allowing them to determine how and what they want to learn.

Here is a link to an article I wrote recently on my blog 'Students are our best teachers'

Thanks for the comment, Greg. I love the John Hattie reference: "Just shut up". In the recorded version of this talk, but not in this prep I did, was the phrase that we used with our Sunderland teachers: "Get the hell out of the way of the learning".

There's too much hard work, teacher talk and interference in the process, and not enough time given to young people just to have the chance to work it through on their own.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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