My good friend and colleague, Krista Ritchie, recently defended her dissertation at McGill University. I was able to attend via distance using Skype. During her defense, I had the opportunty to hear about her research on problem finding. She conducted her study longitudinally, observing students over the course of a year from various Connecticut high school science sites. Each site she studied had students in a “traditional” course (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics) and an applied science research course. Both the traditional and research courses were taught by the same teacher at each site.
As she was presenting her data, one thing stood out to me as a practitioner. She discussed the negative responses often associated with problem finding: anxiety, nervousness, fear. These responses, she discussed, were often not found in the traditional science education classes, yet were prevalent in the applied research class. This immediately got me thinking.
Of course, the proximate interpretation is for an applied science teacher to know that there is anxiety assocaited with the problem finding phase of research, and he or she should do whatever is in his or her power to support the students. Yet, I wonder – what is the necessity of the anxiety to push the student forward to facing and conquering the challenges associated with creative problem finding?
For more of a holistic view of the educational enterprise, I am thinking more about the place of problem finding within educational structures. While I am an advocate of problem finding, I am not so Pollyanna as to realize that creative behaviors like problem finding are often stifled and supressed in education. As much as teachers say they want their students to be creative producers – so many really don’t. I can hear the voices now . . . “Just do what I say.” Or from the students, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” There is TOO much culture of lock-step-do-as-the-teacher-says-and-don’t-push-the-creative-envelope culture prevalent in education. I don’t even claim this to be a one-way street. Teachers and students just want to do as told: solve/teach well-known questions that have well-known answers. I am often disgruntled about how few teachers and students are willing to take a risk and work with ill-defined problems. I think that’s where really powerful learning takes place. My challenge as an instructional leader is to bring more students, parents, teachers, administrators – all the constituents – to this place.
A place where we transcend the logical and analytical processes of problem solving and challenge students to engage in creative problem finding behaviors. And I’m not anxious about saying that one bit!