Solving The Most Complicated Problems

Posted by on Jul 5, 2020 in Problem Solving | 0 comments

Solving the easiest of problems takes a lot of effort, but trying to solve complicated problems is something that is beyond most of our ability.  It’s hard enough to get our arms around simple things but much harder to try to assimilate everything that is going on in a complicated situation.  And that is why complicated problems drag on forever without any sign of improvement.

Take, for instance, homelessness, drug abuse, low graduation rates, or gun violence.  Can these issues be solved or improved?  It’s easy to say that these are the result of our current climate and that solutions are beyond our ability.  But is that true?  It all boils down to how we think about issues and how we approach these kinds of problems.

In his most recent book, Upsteam, The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, Dan Heath tells us there are three barriers to our current way of thinking.  They are problem blindness, lack of ownership, and tunneling.  He tells us that we need to change our way of thinking from a downstream, reactive approach to an upstream, proactive approach.

Heath defines problem blindness as a mindset and the belief that adverse outcomes are natural or inevitable.  They’re out of our control, and there is nothing we can do about it.  That’s how it is — so no one questions it.  He goes on to say, “When we don’t see a problem, we can’t solve it.  And that blindness can create passivity even in the face of enormous harm.  To move upstream, we must first overcome problem blindness.”

An example of problem blindness involved the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).  They had a huge issue with the graduation rate.  In 1998, the graduation rate was 52.4%, meaning that the odds of a student graduating and getting a high school diploma was like flipping a coin.  To help you understand the immensity of the issue, consider that CPS has 642 schools, 360,000+ students, 36,000 employees, and 21,000 teachers.

People had always held the belief that when you come to high school, you’re either going to make or break it.  On top of that, it was felt that many kids just didn’t put forth the effort, i.e., they missed class, they didn’t turn in assignments, and they didn’t seem to care.

In 2005, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research published a study that predicted with 80% accuracy which first-year students would graduate from high school and which ones would drop out.  The prediction was based on two simple factors: a student’s completion of five full-year course credits, and the student not failing more than one semester of a core course, such as math or English.  These two factors became known as the Freshman On-Track (FOT) metric.  First-year students who were on-track by this measurement were 3.5 times more likely to graduate than off-track students.

The study also pointed out that people, in general, are vulnerable during times of transition.  What made Chicago different is that there is no junior high:  Elementary schools are from K to 8, and high schools start in 9th grade.  The FOT metric suggested that for at-risk students, there needed to be a way to ensure they can sustain a full course load, and they must be given extra support in their core courses.

These findings resulted in the following changes at CPS:

  • Teachers were reassigned to ensure only the best teachers were assigned to the freshman class.
  • Specific discipline policies were studied and revised.
  • The mindset of teachers changed from appraising students to supporting them.
  • Freshman Success Teams were created so that teachers across departments could meet to deal with students on a student-by-student basis and to review each student’s progress.

The results of these efforts were more significant than anyone imagined.  By 2018, the graduation rate improved to 78%.  Because they’re now graduating, those students will see their lifetime wages increase on average by $300,000 to $400,000 and other positive benefits that come from higher incomes.



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