The way we think about a problem influences the solutions we can see — and are willing to see. When problem solving gets stuck, sometimes the best way to get unstuck isn’t to keep searching for solutions, but to reframe the problem you’re solving.
I used to teach in a graduate mediation program in Vermont. The curriculum included some online courses and I taught a few of them. In those early days of the grad program, many of my students this term had never taken an online course. The online experience, with both its power and its frustrations, was new.
Let me emphasize frustrations here, since that became front and center for some of the students. This is what happened:
A few had real technological challenges that got in the way of their best learning. Others really missed our in-person interactions and weren’t thrilled with having to take courses online. Still others found the online learning experience a surprisingly good experience and a complement to their in-person classes. These latter students were the least vocal, the frustrated ones the most vocal.
On the last day of the term, I had an in-person class with them and decided to experiment a bit. I wasn’t prepared for the power of what unfolded.
I began class by asking students to give me some feedback about ways that the online learning experience could be improved for them. To give you a sense as to how this went, let me mention that a colleague was sitting in and said to me quietly at one point, “You have a great deal of patience. I’d have strangled them by now.”
I looked at the list I’d made on the board. It was full of all the things that the college could do to fix their problems. Most of it was not unreasonable (though some was way over the top and whiny). But it was a list that clearly put all the responsibility squarely on the college and the faculty. And the more feedback was generated, the greater the funk in the room became. One could feel the tension and frustration grow and grow as we talked. Yuck. Great way to start class, I told myself, I hope this is retrievable.
The class session focused on appreciative inquiry, a method for resolving organizational problems not by focusing on the problems but by focusing instead on what works best in the organization. One of the key assumptions in appreciative inquiry is that what we focus on becomes our reality. So, if we focus on problems, they become front and center in our organizational universe. The students were intrigued by this approach and we discussed where and when it’s a useful method and how to use it.
Near the end of class, I asked students to think about times when the online learning experience really worked for them: The times it flowed, drew out their best thinking and learning, and invited their best engagement. Then I asked them to consider how those experiences could be replicated for future online courses. How could the online learning experience build on what worked best?
The list they generated was profoundly different than the first. Not a little different — a lot. Their ideas were squarely focused on things students could do to make online learning a powerfully effective and engaging experience. The energy in the room was electric—positively so. Their creativity seemed boundless.
And the more they worked, the more they, too, saw the differences from their first list. Several of them said, “You set us up.” I said that I had, but I had no idea just how different the first and last experiences would be from one another.
I asked them to compare the two problem-solving experiences and the resulting lists. One student said, “The first list has important feedback for the college, but it took all our power away and made it your problem to fix. And it grew into a gripe session that didn’t feel very good. The second list reminds me that we have a lot of control over our own learning and our own experience. And it feels terrific to take some of the responsibility and power back.”
It’s so seductive to fixate on what’s wrong and make it the center of attention. And it can be so enlivening to give voice to the best of what we’re doing and build on it.