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How to encourage teachers and pupils to stay in the problem space

Thriving in our ever-changing world requires teachers and pupils to develop new skills and mindsets, such as embracing the problem space and developing problem framing skills. pupils are expected to demonstrate critical thinking, complex problem solving capacity and empathy when trying to find solutions to problems. In this context, pupils are encouraged to go beyond simply receiving information and teachers to assume the role of facilitator to guide pupils in the acquisition of these new skills.

A well-framed problem is a huge step closer to the right solution

To kick start a creative process, it’s necessary to properly analyse and investigate needs, problems or design challenges. Don't rush to finding a solution until you actually know what it is you really need to solve. As Tim Brown, Founder of IDEO, said: “Think of a creative process as starting with a question, not an answer.”

If the problem you are trying to solve is not well framed or clearly understood, all the solutions you will develop and implement will tend to solve the wrong problems or even nothing at all. We often don't invest enough time and effort in the problem space, even though it’s one of the most important steps in the design thinking process. We assume that we know the problem, but in reality, we rarely do because it’s probably much more complex than it seems. Here are some points to keep in mind when a problem is mentioned:

  • It’s most probably not the right one;

  • It’s surely more complex and complicated than it seems;

  • It could be the result of many other problems;

  • It concerns many people. Usually, way more than those we immediately think of;

  • It isn't going to be solved with a single and unique solution but rather a series of complementary solutions;

  • It might not be solved unless we reframe it.

Jumping on the solution generation wagon too early

It’s natural that you may quickly think about solutions when you hear about a problem. But keep in mind that obvious and easy solutions are usually wrong, or at least deal only with the symptomatic part of a problem. Your solutions can usually be accompanied by: "It's easy, all you need to do is..."; "Simple. You do that and it's good." and yet again "We only have to change this and it’s fixed". The problem-solving process is not so binary, which means that we don't look for a solution as soon as we identify our first problem. Rather, it’s a process that requires a thorough understanding of the underlying causes of the problems, which requires time in the field, analysis and curiosity to frame it before beginning to generate solutions.

Being solution-oriented is a highly valued trait, and we’re not suggesting that you get rid of it completely. Rather, we suggest putting it on hold for the problem definition phase.

Staying in the problem space means an in-depth learning and exploration opportunity

Staying in the problem space doesn't only imply sitting down and wondering why? why? why? until we are stuck with existential questions. It is about taking a user-centred approach, meeting with and learning about the people affected by the problem. And while doing that, always keep in mind that we seek to understand, not judge or blame.

More concretely, to stay in the problem space you can do these activities (when possible):

  • Do field work, go meet people in their own environments to try and see by yourself;

  • Meet & observe, don't base your judgment only on what you've heard, have been told or read;

  • Consider all people somehow related to the problem as holders of expertise who can help you see other aspects/angles of the problem;

  • Always remember: “the devil is usually in the details”;

  • Unmount and open up the engine, dissect the process or unpack everything to better understand it and see what you can act on.

All in all, dig deep, snoop around, don't be afraid to ask all sorts of questions to really understand the ins and outs of the problem you are about to address. Once again, a well-framed problem is one step closer to great solutions.

Use tools that will help you investigate better

To have a well-framed problem, you’ll have to go through the Empathize and Define phase of design thinking, both phases have dedicated D-TIPS tools and you can also use these ones that you can explore by yourself:

  • Field visits

  • Guided tours

  • Surveys

  • Silent observation (sit & watch)

  • Personas

  • Testimonials, etc.

However, keep in mind that having a well-framed problem does not necessarily mean that it is the only correct problem. There is usually more than one "good problem", just as there is not just one "good solution" - there may be several problems, so there may be several ways to approach them. And because the design thinking process is not linear, there is never just one good way to solve a problem, but rather multiple possibilities, each based on choices made at some point in the design process. So it's always good to keep in mind that you can expect many variations of appropriate solutions once you've clearly identified which problem you want to address.

So, let's say you have a well-defined problem. What next?

You can now decide which direction you want to go. Clearly defining a problem doesn’t necessarily mean you have to find a solution for it. You have 3 options: decide not to act, decide to reframe the problem or decide to tackle it. This process should allow you to make decisions on whether to act or not, but more importantly what to act on. Keep in mind that this is a strategic choice which shall be based on opportunities, chances of success, available resources, capacities, etc.

To make this decision, here are some questions you can go through to test if you should embark on tackling the problem you clearly framed:

  • Does this problem fall within my competence? How? Why? If not, who has these competences and can help me?

  • Which aspect can I act on?

  • Are other actors involved in this field/topic? Can I join them? Or find inspiration from what they have accomplished?

  • Will this problem stay a problem in the near or far future?

  • What effects can I expect from my intervention?

  • What is the weight of external factors (of the things I can't do much about)?

  • What would happen if I don't do anything about it?

Consider this six-step process when addressing a problem

The moment you hear about a problem, we suggest you activate this six-stage process:

  1. First, doubt the problem. Be so unsure about it, that it sparks an invigorating peak of curiosity for you and your pupils.

  2. Then, open wide your ears and eyes to listen, observe, collect and go in contact with what’s really happening on the field.

  3. Once you’ve completely immersed yourself in the problem space, take the time to reflect, analyse, compare and cross check your data, facts and pieces of evidence.

  4. You can then share your findings to enlarge the conversation and to validate them.

  5. From there, you can start making choices, evaluating opportunities and reviewing your available resources to tackle the problem.

  6. And lastly, you can start generating ideas (phase 3 of the design thinking process).

Here's a tip that will put you on the right track: once you know which problems you want to work on, imagine a desirable vision of what the future would look like once they’re solved. This will show you the impact and interest it will have on the person you are designing for.

And one last point on which we invite you to reflect on:

Adopt the naive learner mindset to avoid framing the problem based on your assumptions, assume you don't know much and be very curious. This should prevent you from being wrong about the problem.


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