Problem Framing and Unanticipated Results

Framing problems is an important, but often overlooked, part of decision-making. How we frame a problem can have a profound influence on the decisions we make.

Recently I had a great conversation with a local high school teacher about students’ lack of readiness for university.  And I suddenly realized that the drop in preparedness of high school students is directly linked to bad problem framing.

The provincial government decided several years ago that in order to remain competitive in the world, we needed to increase the rate of high school graduation.  The rationale was that if more people graduated, the overall level of skills would be higher.

So the government mandated an increased pass rate and tied it to funding. The result was lots more high school graduates.  Does this mean that students had better skills? Probably not, at least that is what my high school teacher friends tell me.  And that has been my experience teaching at the university level.

We’ve dropped our standards in order to meet the mandated graduation rate.  Not the outcome that we wanted.  As a result, we have a higher graduation rate, but our graduates have weaker skills.  This is weakening our competitive position, not strengthening it.

So how does this relate to problem framing? The Ontario Government framed the problem as “not enough people graduating from high school which is lowering our competitiveness”.   They framed the problem with the solution in mind.  What if we framed the problem as “our critical thinking skills are weak”, or “We have weak math and science skills”?   Suddenly we no longer have the solution as part of the problem. 

The problem isn’t really about graduating, it is about ensuring that everyone leaves school with some core skills necessary to compete in today’s world.   Suddenly we have to start thinking about what skills, how to teach them and how to improve student understanding.  We have to re-think curriculum, teaching method and classroom objectives. And we need to deliver the right tools and resources to teachers.

Spending more time understanding the roots of a problem and framing it effectively vastly improves the quality of our decisions.  It takes time, thought, and critical thinking to deeply understand and frame a problem. Perhaps we should be teaching critical thinking and decision-making as a core skill.


3 replies »

  1. Interesting, but i think there are other factors to consider. Such as standardized curriculum that is less flexible to meet a broader range of learning styles as well kids themselves. their communication methods although technical may be grammatically less developed wit the use of instant messages and such. Education in Ontario regressed through the Harris years to being standardized and evaluated with less complex measures and fewer resources to meet broader needs. Perhaps you are just seeing the result of that now.

    • I agree that there are other factors, although I disagree with you on the set standardized curriculum as being one of those factors. Over 25 years ago we did not have flexibility to meet broader learning styles, if anything, there was no recognition of different learning styles, and the writing, critical thinking and numeracy skills were substantially higher.

      I agree that modern communication methods such as IM and texting have had a negative impact on writing skills, and that the resourcing levels are not adequate in schools. But I don’t actually have a problem with standardization of testing and curriculum. Countries with stronger academic performance appear to have standardization and testing that are very rigourous. However, they also have the resources to train teachers more effectively, and they have enough teachers. They also have a culture of work, that is, students put in many more hours studying than north american students.

      Certainly there are many more issues than just bad problem framing. But if we frame the problem incorrectly, it’s going to be difficult to solve it.

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