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“The Problem is the Solution”

Donald G. Perrin

I first heard this expression fifty years ago from the Superintendent of the New York City Schools. I have lost his name and reference, but the expression stayed with me. The solution is defined by the problem, and defining the problem is the first step in problem solving. Many of us bypass the definition step because we already have a solution. However, incomplete analysis and definition is not likely to produce an optimal solution, and a solution that is looking for a problem to solve may not be a solution at all.

A more focused approach is to analyze relevant aspects of the problem, establish goals and criteria, and find several possible solutions. Further research will enable us to determine which solution is practical and most likely to achieve the desired result. This is the scientific method. Solutions may be constrained by access to relevant information, experience, and expectations. For example, the motion picture was fifty years in discovery until George Eastman introduced photographic emulsion on celluloid film in 1889. Sometimes we cannot see the obvious solution because, as Joel Barker (1989) would say, we are limited by our paradigms.  If a solution does not match expectations based on our previous experience, it is may be impossible to recognize it as a solution to the problem.

Key ingredients in problem solving are vision, what we know, what we can discover, and what we can create. We must develop an ability to foresee short-term and long term implications. We need to determine possible byproducts including second and third order effects. For example, Henry Ford produced large numbers of “affordable” automobiles by setting up an assembly line. Second order effects were the need for roads and service stations. Third order effects were social changes. People could now travel further for jobs, shopping, and meeting with friends and associates. The automobile made it practical for large numbers of people to develop relationships outside their immediate community.

In school reform, Cuban (1988) categorizes problems associated with educational change into:

1.  quality-control problems (first-order changes), and

2.  design problems (second order changes).

First-order changes in schools include “recruiting better teachers and administrators, raising teacher salaries, allocating resources equitably, selecting better textbooks, altering content and coursework, scheduling people and activities more efficiently, and introducing new methods of evaluation and training.” First-order changes make the school more efficient and effective without altering organization and structure.

Second order changes transform structure, organization, and the roles of teachers and students by introducing new goals and innovative solutions to solve persistent problems and improve learning and performance. Examples include open classrooms, vouchers, magnet schools, and interactive learning technologies.

In distance learning, emulating the existing classroom experience is a first order change to efficiently reach large numbers of would-be-students who could not otherwise participate in the educational experience. Second order changes are represented by the diagnostic-prescriptive capability of computers and their ability to manage and dynamically adapt presentation materials to meet individual student needs anywhere and at any time. Many educational problems can be solved by distance learning, but it is necessary to recognize its limitations because there are situations where distance learning is not the solution to the problem.


Barker, Joel A (1993) Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future. Harper Business.

Cuban, L. (1988). A fundamental puzzle of school reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 69(5), 341-344.


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