How to Solve a Problem: Step One

The first step to solving a problem is identifying the problem. We cannot fix something or change something if we don’t see it.

But what happens if we can’t see it, won’t see it, or refuse to accept it? What happens when we refuse to take responsibility for problems that are brought to our attention, or brush them off as being someone else’s problem?

We can’t solve a problem if, for us, it isn’t there or it isn’t relevant. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t want to.

This might sound really obvious, but a certain attitude about problems is also pervasive in education. In my current context, there’s a deep reticence to addressing even the most visible problems, let alone the problems that lurk below the surface. This is troubling because refusal to see, admit to, and take ownership of problems harms both young people and the adults around them who are trying to do the right thing (because there are always people trying to do the right thing). Much contemporary education claims to be caring or compassionate and, in my experience, it often is not.

So, the first step to solving a problem: Admitting that it exists.

Problems in Schools

Every school I have worked in call itself a community. It’s common to hear, “In our community we believe X. We do Y. We are Z.” This means that we are all responsible for the development and action of X, Y, and Z, which also means that when there is a problem, we need to address it. Unfortunately, addressing the problem is often neglected and I think there are a number of reasons for that. These reasons will be explored below.

For context, my school uses the phrase “see it, own it” as a way of dealing with issues that are (arguably) detrimental to learning. I recently learned that “see it, own it” is an abstraction of The Oz’s Principle‘s “See It, Own It, Solve It, Do It”. Clearly, there are multiple parts here. If you see a problem, you need to do something about it. Claiming only “see it, own it” is an abstraction of this much larger idea, and it seems to have neglected a fundamental part.

My concern with an educational environment in which “see it, own it” is enough is the lack of collective responsibility. If we want a certain community, I say to my students all the time, we have to build it. We can’t just talk about it – we have to do something.

So why don’t we?

Fear: I can’t be wrong.

In evolutionary terms, fear is a primary human motivator. We are afraid of the dark, spiders, and heights because these things can harm us physically and limit our ability to reproduce. We are also afraid of losing face, losing a sense of self, and damaging our self-esteem. We are afraid of being wrong and looking like we don’t know the answers because we think we should. We are afraid of admitting failure because we put ourselves up on pedestals of expertise.

And when it’s very clear that something has gone wrong, we rationalise. We make excuses. We deflect. We remove ourselves from the situation and blame someone or something else. The fundamental attribution error, or FAE, applies here: If something goes well, it’s due to my disposition and I deserve credit, but if something goes poorly, it’s due to the situation and it’s not my fault. (Go figure.) We act like this because it is easier than accepting our part in what has gone wrong and doing something about it. It is easier to excuse than to solve or to do. I can’t be wrong so instead I push the problem away from myself.

As I explore with my students, psychology suggests that much of what we do is meant to protect us from what is mentally uncomfortable or difficult. This often comes in the form of cognitive dissonance. For example, I see myself as a person who cares for the environment and yet I fly many times a year. I recognise the contradiction and this makes me uncomfortable. Instead of giving up flying because that’s hard and frankly, I don’t want to do that (oh gosh, how environmentally conscious am I, really?) I tell myself that other people fly more often, or that the plane might as well be full, or that I don’t use plastic straws so at least I’m helping somehow.

I make excuses instead of solving the problem because I refuse to accept that I am part of the problem. After all, what would that do to my sense of self? What if I’m wrong? I am afraid of what I might find if I start to look. What if I’m not the person I claim to be? And what if everyone else sees that?

I am afraid and I choose to do nothing.

Indifference: This really isn’t my problem.

Another reason that people in schools fail to solve problems is indifference. They really don’t care about the problem because they don’t actually see themselves as part of a community that honours X, Y, or Z. These are the people who say, “I just work here” or “That’s not my job”.

While this might be valid in certain contexts and I accept that this may be the case in organisations, it is not an acceptable attitude when young people and adults are being harmed due to someone else’s indifference. If we do not all agree to be part of the community and build the community, there will never be a community. People who behave indifferently erode what could be and therefore actively harm everyone else and the very concept of community.

We have to recognise that the problem exists and this means caring enough about the environments that we are in to recognise that none of us exists in a vacuum. We have all chosen to be part of something and we have the option to choose differently if we realise we don’t want to be there. But we cannot simply opt out without having an adverse impact on others. Choosing not to participate is as much of an action as any other action.

Claiming that, “This isn’t my problem” is an action. It is an action of doing nothing.

Uncertainty: What am I supposed to do?

I think uncertainty is closely related to fear but I’m going to address it separately for the sake of clarity.

Many would argue that there are those who do care and do want to help but they just don’t know how, or there are obstacles at every turn. I agree that this is often the case. I have heard many, many teachers say, “Well what am I supposed to do? I don’t make the decisions around here.” Alright, yes. There are many decisions that teachers do not make, but there are also many decisions that teachers do make. One that has become increasingly obvious to me is the option to sit down with someone and point out a concern that they have clearly not considered, for whatever reason. There might not be a “fix” but at least there is now deliberate awareness of something that is not right.

Please understand, it is okay to be uncertain. But it is not okay to use uncertainty as an excuse for inaction. There’s a slippery slope from uncertainty to something deeper and I think it’s important to be aware of this. The question of what to do often has a real answer and we need to recognise when we are asking that question genuinely and when we are using it as a way to shield ourselves from having to act.

What are we supposed to do? We’re supposed to recognise that the problem is there, consider our role in the community, and act in accordance with that role. What kind of community do we want to build? Behave in the ways that reflect this community.

Callousness: I just don’t care.

This one is really tricky for me because for a long time, I didn’t believe that callousness actually existed in education. It was a very painful lesson to find that, in fact, some people are involved in education just because that’s how life went and not because they have any sort of interest in young people or in making the world a better place. In nine years as an educator, I have learned that some people really are involved in this field because the holidays are good and because, in many systems, they’re largely left alone to do whatever they want.

I can say a lot about such systems but I will stick with the topic of this post right now. As much as it deeply hurts me to say it, there are people in education who just don’t care. I wish this were not the case. These people should not have a place in any environment where their actions affect others, and particularly young people. Such people are concerned for themselves with utter neglect of anyone or anything else. And they are unlikely to change.

I am disturbed by people who pretend to care because that’s how to get away with doing whatever they want to do, and I have learned not to trust them. It has been a difficult lesson. These people, in and of themselves, are problems that schools need to solve.

Conclusion

The first step to solving a problem is identifying the problem. We must admit that it is there. Members of a community are often very happy to be part of what’s going well and toss their hat into the ring of what’s popular, but they often fail to act the same way when something is not going well and is not popular. No one wants to be the person who says, “This isn’t working. I know we spent a lot of time on it but I dropped the ball here and miscalculated there. I’m sorry. This is how I will move forward and help us all recover.” No one wants to be the person who says, “I wish this weren’t the case but this is what happened and I’m not in a position to fix the system. What can I do right now instead?”

Schools have problems when those difficult conversations are avoided and when band-aids are put on problems so that things look better. In reality, problems are perpetuated because the retrofitted system continues. Schools have problems when there is no sustainability because there were no deliberate systems in the first place. The way to develop sustainability is to stop patching up the problems and actually get your hands dirty and fix them.

No one ever said this was easy. It’s not. But it’s essential if we want to live in a world that is more just than this one. And it’s required if we claim to be part of a community.

Step one: Look the problem in the face.
Step two: Take a deep breath.
Step three: Do something about it.

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