What PROBLEM are we trying to solve?

This is a post in which I am sort of “thinking out loud” so I would love your thoughts.

I went for breakfast with a great critical friend of mine, Brian Kuhn, a few weeks ago. Brian is the CIO of the Vancouver School Board and we were discussing the many changes taking place and how we manage these changes (with technology but also other areas of change in BC schools).  I am reading Friedman’s “Thank You For Being Late” and within it, shares how our rate of change in society has surpassed the extent to which we can actually adapt to change. This reading, with the conversation with Brian, certainly got me thinking.

We discussed things like redesigned curriculum, collaborative software/apps (Google, Office 365, etc), online report cards, communicating student learning, phone systems, device management, MyEDBC, and online attendance. I was stating that with so many changes coming from outside, it is hard to encourage schools and educators to make positive changes on their own (in addition to the changes that are mandated).  Brian then said something that is simple but I cannot get out of my mind and have used many times already since being back in the buildings this year.  He said, when looking at new ways of doing things, we cannot look at the tools, new procedures, devices, etc without asking…. “What problem are we trying to solve?”

Once he said this, I went back to my sharing of the many changes that have been mandated or presented as options and asked this question. I have been sold on many “shiny” things and ideas in the past few years.  In my early years as an admin, I wanted to try everything because it looked great and someone had sold it well. As I gained experience (and hopefully wisdom), I have become more cautious of the new and shiny things and reflected more on the purpose (the WHY) of the tool or new idea.  When I use the question, what problem are we trying to solve, it can rule out the new and shiny unless it is helping us solve an agreed upon problem.

An example of the problem first approach would be what we did for our staff meetings. I initially started using Google Docs with staff because it was the “cool thing to do”… all the “cool kids” seemed to be doing it. Before I left my last school, I had a few staff members share with me that they felt there was too much tech and not enough face to face. When I arrived at my new school, we spent time discussing effective staff meetings. The problem that was stated by many staff members in an anonymous survey was that there was an inequity of voice in staff meetings – some staff member’s voices were heard much more often than others. We had defined our problem.  Now, if inequity of voice is the problem, then we can explore solutions that can help solve this problem. We can and do use tools like collaborative documents (ex. Google docs, Office 365) to provide an opportunity for people to share their thoughts and build off of the ideas of others without having to speak in front of people, we can use survey apps (ex. Google forms, Office 365 Forms) to get input from people (either anonymously or with name), or we can use strategies such as Pair-Share and Chalk Talk to have people share their voice in a small setting or in writing so it is more of a safe place.  Using Google Apps because it seems fun to try is much different than using Google Apps as ONE of the solutions to solve a problem.  We implemented a few different strategies to solve our problem and all have been effective at providing more equity of voice.

So when we look at the many changes and ideas that are presented to us as educators, it is important to engage in the dialogue around the WHY: what problem are we trying to solve?  Here a few initial thoughts based on my discussion with Brian:

  • If we are doing online report cards (vs sending home a paper copy), what problem are we trying to solve (environment? ease of access? time?)? Who is defining the problem? What is the current user (parents) experience with paper reporting? What will the user experience be with online reporting (are we asking)? What other problems arise as a result of this (new formats, new language, etc)? Is the problem big enough that it is worth making the change right now?
  • If we want teachers to do online attendance, what problem are we trying to solve? Who is defining this problem? What problems may arise with moving to online attendance (vs paper attendance)?
  • For Office 365 in our district, I believe the problems are clear: we do not have a central location to store documents that can be accessed by staff and we need to have a cloud-based storage solution that aligns with FOIPPA (stored in Canada).  Office 365 has been an effective solution for the issue of central storage and collaboration.
  • For solutions like the redesigned curriculum, the WHY and stated problems with the previous are vast but a key one for us is that in the previous curriculum, there was very little flexibility to dive deeper into topics and for teachers to have the autonomy to tap into students strengths and interests.
  • For communicating student learning, we have had numerous discussions with admin and teachers and I believe that the problem can be summarized as: report cards being sent 3 times per year does not provide parents with enough information to be fully aware of their child’s learning and work closely with the school to support development. If we then phrase it as a question, we can begin to explore the potential solutions. HOW can we use technology to provide a (parent) window in to student learning so they can become more engaged in their child’s education? OR If we use [WordPress, FreshGrade, Edmodo, or another preferred platform], will parents become more informed of their child’s learning so they can work more closely with the school to support their child’s education?

In the last example above, we move from stating the problem to framing the problem as a question to gather as many solutions as needed. This has been very helpful for us to create specific solutions once the problem has been stated. After all of this, we have to remember to always look back and seek evidence to see if our solutions are actually solving the problems we stated.

Too often we are drawn in and sold on solutions to problems which we have not even defined. Effective sales people do this very well as you walk away with something new that you didn’t even know you needed! In schools, we have so much change right now.  I love Brian’s idea of defining the problem first and then seeing if we can find potential solutions as I believe this will help us filter and manage the changes more effectively.

I am still working through this so I would love your thoughts or successes or challenges with managing change.

Image: Pixabay

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. “HOW can we use technology to provide a (parent) window in to student learning so they can become more engaged in their child’s education? ” I guess that depends on the community. I spend more of my time wishing parents would interfere less with the progress of their children. Making demands on their own children and their teacher when it doesn’t help learning. Or, knowing more than they need to know, because we are now expected to have a website, Google classroom, online Math programming and, manage a face to face learning environment all day. So now we have encouraged hyper parenting by overloading them with available information, some are feeling guilty that they don’t have time to check the website, or respond to alerts,…because maybe they have a job? I think it is too much. And I don’t think they need to know about every single test result. Enough already. What is the problem we are trying to solve?

    • Hey Janet, yes context can be very different. As a teacher, I have not felt that parents have interfered with progress and have felt that when they were more informed, it was better overall. My context is also different with expectations around online presence as well (as I have never worked under the expectations you describe). I do agree that there is a point where we need to ask how is our time best spent? I agree with your question: What problem is solved by so much expected online presence and what other problems have been created? As a parent, I truly appreciate when the teacher has a website or has the students use a digital portfolio as this helps me understand what they are learning and how I can support. The key is that this needs to be done in a way that informs parents but does not take away from the teaching and actually enhances the home:school relationship. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Well stated! I’m currently on maternity leave until January and when asked how I feel about returning to the classroom my response is always, “I can’t wait to get back to kids and teaching but I’m not looking forward to finding solutions to ‘things’ that are not problems.”

    Getting into the habit of asking “What problem are we trying to solve?” before new initiatives would make for purposeful discussions and engaged teachers.

    • Thanks, Lindsey! Defining the problem is linked to design thinking and is crucial to guiding our conversations. I just wish Brian had shared this with me years ago! haha.

      Congrats on the baby. I hope your transition back to work goes well.

  3. I love the idea of asking “what is the problem we are trying to solve?” when considering new initiatives and technologies. I think we also need to look at who thinks it’s a problem. I use Fresh Grade and truly love it as a platform for my students to reflect on and evaluate their own learning. I thought for sure that all of my parents would be on it at least weekly, checking their child’s progress and thereby partially solving the communication problem of “how is my child doing at school?”. Sadly, despite the good work my students and I do, very few of our parents are looking on Fresh Grade. Do they see communication as a problem? Do they care (of course, I know they do but maybe not in the way I think they do!)? I will continue to use Fresh Grade because it solves some of the problems I had/have……but I will do so with my eyes open, knowing that many of my parents don’t seem to have the same problems I do!

    • Thanks for chining in, Cari! It is too bad that many parents are not using this window in to their child’s education. I loved having my daughters on FG last year! you bring up a good point in which context is key – the user experience. I wonder how often we spend time sharing the why of change with our parent community. I wonder how often we ask them about their experience? I know, personally, I can do a better job in this area as maybe what I see as a problem is not a problem in their eyes. There is the other side of this is that maybe people do not see it as a problem as they have not seen what is possible… but again we need to be careful about showcasing the shiny rather than simply focusing on the problem/solution. I encourage you to continue using FG – even if only a small amount are seeing it, I am sure your efforts are greatly appreciated by them!

  4. Another point here is that some of the mandates coming down are trying to RE-SOLVE problems that have already *been* solved. Currently, I am being forced to use tools in replace of tools that I was already savvy with, and now have to re-learn those tools on a different platform or, what typically happens, is I just ditch them all together. Why? Because I don’t have time to focus on learning *even more* new tech. (And I’m not a person who EVER lets tech get in my way… and I’m saying that.)

    The changes that are happening in BCed are too numerous and too lofty; too much control is being exercised in these mandates, and there is not enough autonomy and voice for the users affected. Has anyone ever thought about asking students? Parents? Teachers? … Sadly, many of these decisions leave most of us (save for perhaps a small, hand-selected interest group or two) in the dark as to why the change is happening, yet it affects us every day. Feeling heard in the midst of change is a powerful thing. Knowing that you can impact that change to make it work for a collective good is even more powerful. It is up to our leadership to ensure that all users are feeling like their needs – or problems – are being addressed, if they even need to be addressed in the first place.

    • I think we have a lot of work to do in the area of consultation and autonomy. For teachers like you, I believe we need to provide more autonomy as you will lead us into new areas while testing the effectiveness of a variety of tools. We can have a “unified approach” as a baseline while also providing opportunities for “innovation” by giving good people the tools they need to be great.

  5. Great points on seeing a perceived problem from different viewpoints. What is a problem for some isn’t necessarily for others (eg, the Fresh Grade example). The comment about being overwhelmed with multiple things to update or check is important. I think we do need to narrow the options (thus choices) and focus on solving a problem or enabling a possible with the least effort.

    My view is if we introduce a tool, it should make something better and things should work differently, or what was the point of the tool.

    I appreciate the comment about ‘forced change’. As a person working at a District level, I’m sure to have been guilty of doing that from time to time. In a scarcity model (limited funds and time), we do sometimes make choices to support A versus B and whoever is using B, will not feel supported. I think as long as Districts are careful to allow/enable/support some variations/flexibility, it should be minimized. I also think that we need to all get used to a different pace of change when it comes to technology – gone are the days where things stay the same for much more than a month where Districts nor individuals have any say or control in the pace or the what of the change.

    Great point about feeling heard, inviting input, especially when contemplating a future change. Also, being clear about why a change is necessary and important. It sounds easy but in large organizations with many interested people, there will be numerous divergent opinions and interests so a change will feel good to some and not so much to others…

    • Yes, there are some changes that we all can make, some that are made for us, and some that certain people get to make. When changes have a significant impact on schools and classrooms, it is crucial to have a feedback loop that includes the schools. Seems obvious but it is sometimes a missed step. Thanks for getting me thinking to start the year (again)!

  6. Hi Chris. Finding this post is a wonderful serendipity! I was visiting your website to learn how to contact you to let you know that we quoted from your TEDx talk “Start with Strengths” in the non-profit MyWays Student Success Series, here in the States. In essence, the question “What problem are we trying to solve?” is the first of four through-line questions that organized three years of MyWays research into what learners need to thrive in a world of change. The first five reports address “Adolescence in an Age of Accelerations,” and your thoughts are included in Report 5, Preparing Apprentice-Adults for Life after High School. Hoping this research might be useful to our friends across the border! (https://myways.nextgenlearning.org/)

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