The Big Problem Problem

In his article on MIT Technology Review, Jason Pontin asks, “Why Can’t We Solve Big Problems: Has Technology Failed Us?” He goes on to discuss the financial and political drivers that have led technology companies to focus on solutions to small, incremental problems, or to producing technology that doesn’t solve any problems at all.

While I would agree that there is a lack of long-term, big picture thinking in many parts of the technology field, I would also argue that the current focus of our education system is not designed to foster Big Problem solving skills. The push for standards and standardized testing, links between school performance and funding, and student scores and teacher evaluation, all point us in the direction of getting kids to perform well on timed, high-stakes tests.

By their very nature, these assessments do not (and most likely could never) gauge a student’s ability to work with so-called “ill-structured” problems. Ill-structured problems require us to apply incomplete or inconclusive information to address a problem that has no clear answer, or perhaps multiple solutions. These types of problems are the ones that happen every day in the real world – poverty, drugs, civil and international conflict, global warming, etc.

When we are training our students to carefully construct a 5-paragraph essay, or find the correct area of an irregular shape, we are certainly developing useful skills. The ability to solve these types of problems is not something that can be abandoned. However, the Big Problems aren’t multiple choice – or there may be multiple choices that are all equally valid from a different point of view.

Another aspect of this that compounds the difficulty is the current political climate. It is extremely difficult for most politicians to see past the next election cycle. Policy changes that won’t come to fruition for years to come are difficult to fit into a sound bite or campaign advertisement. Like Silicon Valley, Washington DC is focused on the present, often at the expense of the future.

As if all of this weren’t enough of a challenge, changing the education system to produce more Big Problem solvers is itself a Big Problem. Education and learning are still developing fields of study. We are working out how individuals learn and think, and trying to teach people to think big is just one more layer in an already complex web of policy and practice.

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