Don’t Just Create Solutions; Solve Problems
The use of technology in education is something that has always inspired me to experiment and innovate in search of answers to problems that present in my classroom. I have used technology to create a myriad of solutions myself and have bought into programs that solve them for me. However, in 15 years of teaching I had never been able to get to a BETT Show event in person before this year (I teach secondary English). To say I was super excited to attend this year, so I could lead a Minecraft: Education Edition workshop, would be an understatement.
On the train home after BETT this year, I looked through fliers and contacts and perused the event hashtag taking stock against the classroom problems I’d gone looking to solve. About an hour in to my journey, it struck me that there were thousands of solutions on show at BETT… it just isn’t clear what problem some of them are solving. At one point I found myself in a corner that looked like a school robotics fair with stall after stall of little robot bugs that follow a path/code string/light. Really cool projects from very innovative people who were clearly enthusiastic about their creations… but what were they solving? And at what cost?
It was obvious that some companies had created products aimed at the education market that provide solutions. Training solutions, collaboration solutions, coding solutions, hardware solutions and so on in a seemingly endless metropolis of slickly branded stalls and stations. The majority were keen to speak to me (it was the Saturday so the rest were understandably keen to get home after a long week) about their product. Their solutions were slickly presented with live demonstrations and PR materials in abundance. Nobody asked me about the problems I was looking to solve. It is almost as though the solution they had created became its own entity detached from the original problem that prompted it.
I can hear you shouting at the screen from here and I agree; sometimes we don’t see the problem until we have been presented with a solution to it. I saw many such gems on my tour of the BETT show floor and these are truly magical moments. But they are even more magical because I had to walk past 20 problemless solutions before finding them.
Schools have priorities in terms of the problems they are looking to solve. For some it might be the attainment gap between disadvantaged boys and their peers in Reading. For others their girls might be underachieving in Science. Go to BETT next year with those on your problem list and see how many solutions you find. Then take a step back and look at how much educational money, innovation talent and experience are assembled in the building.
Teachers solve problems thousands of times every single day. We create “hacks” that make our lives easier, make learning more effective and even unlock learning for those bringing significant barriers with them to our classrooms. We do so within an agenda set for us by someone else and within accountability measures that we have no control over. Sure, we theorise about how education should work and we dream about the best education system possible but we then go back to working the problems in front of us each day.
It appears this grounding in the educational day-to-day is missing from the wider Ed Tech community. These innovators and thinkers have solved the problems they set out to solve, created new ones and solved them so many times that they are operating in some parallel educational universe so far removed from the classroom that it may as well have a star date against it. I read their theories and insights with interest about what their vision of an education system should look like to solve the problems of society in 2053. I am excited and enthused by their rhetoric and pause for a moment to share their dream. I then go back to solving the thousands of problems that present themselves to me daily in the real world.
The Bottom Line
There is a difference between creating solutions and solving problems. Teachers know the problems they face and have to overcome daily; they know the curriculum within which they are operating; they know the budget constraints they have to remain within; they know the young people they greet warmly every day and work their magic with. They cannot simply create an alternate reality of what education may look like and then solve the problems created within that fictional paradigm. So, I commend you for your 2053 vision and I marvel at your intellectual gravitas in creating solutions for the problems of the future but forgive me for returning to the problems of today and seeking solutions that matter now. When you think of a problem that matches your solution feel free to come back to me; until then I will continue to solve the problems in front of me right now.