November 29, 2011

Finding the right problems to solve: Gladwell on the Norden bombsight

In his latest TED Talk, Malcolm Gladwell tells The Strange Tale of the Norden Bombsight, where the US Government spent billions on a technology that didn't solve the real problems of the people using it (bombers had huge accuracy with the machine but this was rendered useless by clouds), and was used for solving problems that didn't exist, too (perfect sighting on a nuclear bomb is not an essential).

Basically, we see governments and institutions continually inventing sights that can finding the pear barrel 20,000 feet below, even though we don't need it. We continually seek solutions to the wrong problems, at great expense, and build things we, and the users of the things, don't need. And finally, we have developed a strong capacity for building success around the wrong metrics to justify our bold, but wrong, decisions. 

Sound familiar?

What would happen if, instead of creating this generation of problem solvers, people who can solve imaginery theoretical pseudo problems really well, we helped carve out a generation of curious continual learners who want to find the next great genuine problem that needs solving?


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I agree with the sentiment of your 'problem finders' programme, Ewan, but doesn't it assume that people will recognise (and be able to form consensus around) a 'genuine problem' when they see it?

Nothing is assumed - It's very much a skill that has to be coached, practiced a lot and where failure (finding a problem that wasn't really worth solving) is an acceptable part of te journey. In schools, teachers tend to want to jump in too early to keep problem solving 'relevant', within what they or a curriculum has deemed worth solving. Of course, most of these are too general to be relevant to every kid in a classroom. Get every kid finding nuances on a problem, though, and we see a different sort of learning - breadth at the beginning and deeper depth later, deeper than any trad method short of a PhD ;-)

So you're arguing for a problem-based *curriculum* and (without really wanting to put words in your mouth) collapsing subject disciplines?

(I'm in favour of the latter BTW, so not a criticism)

Problem-FINDING curriculum where the solving comes after - yes, absolutely - although many of our schools are showing that you can make small steps, remaining in subject disciplines, and still have good impact. Best examples are where subjects are playing second fiddle to the problems students want to solve.

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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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