Reframe the Problem to Create Better Solutions

I read this article, Are you Solving the Right Problems by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg and thought about the implications for many “problems” in education.  The way we see the problem can prevent us from more effective solutions. Here is a great example of “The Slow Elevator Problem” and how reframing the problem can allow for the creation of better solutions.

Imagine this: You are the owner of an office building, and your tenants are complaining about the elevator. It’s old and slow, and they have to wait a lot. Several tenants are threatening to break their leases if you don’t fix the problem.

When asked, most people quickly identify some solutions: replace the lift, install a stronger motor, or perhaps upgrade the algorithm that runs the lift. These suggestions fall into what I call a solution space: a cluster of solutions that share assumptions about what the problem is—in this case, that the elevator is slow. This framing is illustrated below.


However, when the problem is presented to building managers, they suggest a much more elegant solution: Put up mirrors next to the elevator. This simple measure has proved wonderfully effective in reducing complaints, because people tend to lose track of time when given something utterly fascinating to look at—namely, themselves.

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The mirror solution is particularly interesting because in fact it is not a solution to the stated problem: It doesn’t make the elevator faster. Instead it proposes a different understanding of the problem.

The Problem

This example made me think of a conversation I had with passionate and caring leaders. As I was working with a team as they were discussing their hopes and dreams to provide an education that prepared their students for college and career, but they were equally frustrated with the seemingly insurmountable gap in their skills and where they needed to be in order to even be eligible for college. They were all working so hard to get students prepared for college and had been creating extra courses and opportunities for students to catch up but, in spite of their efforts, they described how students regularly pushed past teachers who were trying to hold them back and were literally running out the doors to “break out of school.”  This had become normal to them and they hadn’t considered why the extra classes and support wasn’t getting them to their desired outcomes or that there might be another way. 

Many of these teachers had been successful in school and not understood the experiences of their students. From their perspective, they were going above and beyond to help these students and teach them everything they needed to be successful.  Diligently implementing the district and school initiatives. They were giving formative assessments, analyzing data in their PLCs and reteaching, providing extra classes and support yet only 50% of their students were “proficient” and less than 35% of them were eligible to go to college.  They were doing all that was expected of them and more but it wasn’t working and they were frustrated.

One woman turned to me and genuinely asked, What would you do with 400 students who didn’t want to learn?

I took a minute to process what she was asking and realized that one of the challenges they were facing was rooted in this very question.  If we look beyond schools and at student’s daily lives, we have to realize that they are learning more than we give them credit for.  Many of these students are learning to play video games, some are learning how to make a variety of products and connecting and sharing things on social media, they are learning how to act and react by the models and interactions they have with peers and adults.  I don’t believe that it is learning that they are against but more how we often prescribe it in schools.

Reframing the Problem

The hearts of these teachers and administrators are in the right place, they are committed to these kids but the practices are not getting to their desired goal. What if we reframe the question and look at this challenge from a different perspective. Instead of assuming that students don’t want to learn, could we ask, What is preventing students from learning in school?

I certainly don’t have all the answers and think they will vary based on the context and the learners. Beginning by reframing the challenges and bringing in multiple perspectives, I have no doubt that the caring and talented educators can create new and better opportunities to meet the needs of those in their schools and classrooms.

The author goes on to highlight in the article, “The point of reframing is not to find the “real” problem, but rather if there is a better problem to solve.” Looking at the challenges and also the purpose of education differently can help us think about better solutions. I love this quote from AJ Juliani that George Couros recently shared, “Our job is not to “prepare” kids for something; our job is to help kids learn to prepare themselves for anything.” If we use this as a starting point, reframing the problems we face may help us come up with novel solutions that better meet the needs of the learners in a continuously changing world.  These solutions may look and feel different than they have in the past, which is necessary if we are going to get better not just continue to repackage what we have always done.

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3 Replies to “Reframe the Problem to Create Better Solutions”

  1. When I moved to my new school this past year, I was intrigued by this statement from my headmaster: “We prepare the child for the path; not the path for the child.” This saying resonates well with your thoughts and provides focus on our objective as educators. It does seem difficult to fathom when the possible paths seem more like a bowl of spaghetti with innumerable passionate pathways than the calm, “less traveled” option as described by Robert Frost. But the effort and goal remains the same. Great post!

  2. I like this post. It makes me think about the fact that we should be teaching kids how to think, not what to think. It could very well be that what is preventing students from learning is that we are treating learning as something that is done TO students– something that they receive. But if we teach kids how to think, then learning is a natural consequence.

    1. So agree, Dan! Thanks for you comments.

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