The problem with problems

The problem with problems is that if you’re only looking for problems, then, surprise surprise, you’ll only find problems. Adopting ‘problem seeking and solving’ mode most of the time would make you miserable, don’t you think? Sometimes, people get so deep into problem solving that they end up seeing problems where there are none. Given this situation, is it worth considering how school policies, ethos, protocols etc might drive everyone into a relentless ‘problem solving’ mode such that everyone ends up really miserable? In case you’re starting to feel a bit confused, take the everyday responsibility of primary teachers to monitor friendships and social interactions of children both in the classroom and in the playground: you’ve got to adopt ‘problem finding’ mode for the entire duration of break duty and through your lessons. Further, in terms of resource allocation, this means that the majority of decisions and allocations of resources are reactionary, rather than proactive: see a child looking a bit sad, go to said child and deploy comforting words, ask some nice children to play with them, make a note in the behaviour log about said child and a mental note to follow up their social progress the next day etc.

Do you see any happy faces?

I’m not sure there’s any way round this and perhaps this blog is purely an observation rather an attempt to try and square some kind of educational circle. Even marking books is all about problem seeking: make a note of those children who, despite lots of explanation, modelling, scaffolding etc still didn’t ‘get it’ and then wearily going out during the last bit of lunchtime (left after frantic marking) to pull them in for a same-day intervention. Behaviour is another area where teachers have to be in constant problem find-and-solve mode because low-level disruption is so commonplace (and many children these days seem to default to cheeky monkey mode whenever you stop looking at them). I find this really wears me down because my head is constantly filled with problems and I can never dwell on the positives or really concentrate on forging a path ahead for the children.

Given the above, this is one of the reasons why I like the sound of what goes on at Michaela Community School: the systems that are in place (which put the onus on the children to work hard, for example) free the teachers from being in problem finding mode all of the time and enables them to adopt a more positive mindset of concentrating on teaching and training their charges to be kind, hard-working and intelligent. My hypothesis is that in schools where systems, protocols, routines and expectations have been created and are non-negotiable, the mental health of teachers (and children) is much better. The trouble is that it is commonplace for management within schools to increase the amount of ‘scanning for problems’ that teachers must do, such as expecting huge spreadsheets to be generated and certain numbers to be flags for adding yet more intensity to that child’s educational experience. This, in a nutshell, is probably what drives me to blog so much; I am actually trying to create a positive future by writing about possible ways to free myself from being in problem-seeking mode all the time. I think this is what drives many teachers to blog.

Perhaps all that can be done is to be aware of how, in adopting any new policy or minding teachers to be on the lookout for yet another flag, number or behaviour, we are loading up their minds with problems, problems and more problems. Perhaps we could make an effort to provide mental ‘balance’ by creating systems where successes are celebrated for the teachers? Even better, think about how decisions can be made that free the teacher from having to be in problem-finding mode all the time.

Who’s with me?


4 thoughts on “The problem with problems

  1. “The problem with problems is that if you’re only looking for problems, then, surprise surprise, you’ll only find problems”

    I would assert that the same is likely true of benefits of traditional education / Michaela ….seek and ye will find.

    A couple of other points for me are…

    1 Homo sapiens are designed to solve problems, it’s what we do all day every day. Most people I have ever come across (an continue to come across) seem to thrive on identifying and solving problems 24/7

    2 Your problem solving method is a bit trivial, designed for primary pupils would be my guess.Such an approach might make me a bit miserable I think, it is a little uninspiring to say the least. I use a problem solving approach to teaching and learning and my students tend to be both engaged and successful.


  2. “…take the everyday responsibility of primary teachers to monitor friendships and social interactions of children both in the classroom and in the playground…”

    This, of course, is part and parcel of modern education, although in secondary school behaviour has usually deteriorated to the point where teachers are more concerned with avoiding abuse from kiddies. It seems that the model for primary education is a soap opera, and teachers are expected to be voyeurs penetrating the remotest cranny of children’s lives. In practice, I expect most good teachers only interject themselves into these ‘social interactions’ when someone starts sobbing their eyes out; yet the whole concept is a bit creepy. As a parent and as a teacher, I always operated on the assumption that children are entitled to privacy. I never dreamed of vetting my son’s friends, and I was perfectly content with what he chose to tell me about his social life.

    Michaela is a good example–when teachers concentrate on the activities and objectives you enumerate, you can be all but certain that children’s social development will look after itself.


  3. …to say nothing about school managements who adopt this approach and regularly find problems amongst their staff where none actually exists…


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