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Problems Have Solutions

“What is one goal you would like to accomplish in your lifetime?”

This was a question I posed to the student body of a self contained high school class at Child's Way Charter School. It soon became apparent that many of the students were unable to give a goal that they would like to accomplish in their future.

I stepped out and shared with them a modest goal of my own, being able to solve a Rubik’s Cube. I had been attempting to reach this goal - to solve it on my own - since I had discovered the cube in fourth grade. My strategies to solve the cube, so far, had yielded no success and had rather transformed my goal into a persistent problem.

I explained my thought process for how to solve the cube to the students and allowed them to critique my strategy, my “system”, to solve my problem. It soon became apparent that I was attempting to solve a problem repeatedly by myself with no innovation or help, only my belief that more work would yield success. The problem was that I did not know what I was doing. I was working on the problem intensely, but only solving one or two sides at best. I was working, but not really doing anything but spinning my wheels, and telling myself I was making progress. I had neglected to evaluate my own process.

Some of the students took on my goal for themselves and made the independent choice to use their hour of “Tinker Time” to explore alternative options to solving the problem - solving a Rubik’s Cube.

Let me back track for one moment...Tinker Time is an hour set aside for students’ self exploration in an area of independent study. It is time for them to tinker, learn, discover... with no pressure. It’s taking time, for time sake, to understand what it is you want to understand.

Two students immediately went to the the Rubik’s Cube website and printed off the prescribed solutions to solving the cube. Stage 1: definitions of the Rubik’s cube pieces...Stage 2: holding the cube, making the white cross...Stage 3: solving the white corners...

Within a week, both of the students had committed the process to memory and were able to solve the cube within minutes. Others saw them demonstrating their new found talent and would exclaim, 

"You guys are geniuses!"

This opened the door to have a different discussion on labels and how this one - being geniuses - often gets prescribed where it simply does not belong. I reminded the students about the article that we had read, “The Truth About Grit”.

We discussed that what they are witnessing when they watch the students solve the cube, or play a piece of music, or read a story that was written with passion and truth is the finished product - the zenith - of all those hours of thought, work, & perseverance.

So, here I was with two colleagues, 20 years younger than I, who had taken my pontification of what is needed to solve problems to heart. We pulled out the main components about how they were able to accomplish this - those components being time, commitment, willingness to seek out those with proven solutions, and then, the final phase, putting it to the test.

Within a week another student wanted to utilize the Lego "Mindstorms" kit, to construct a “Tilted Twister”, he had seen on the Internet. It was a machine that appeared to solve the Rubik’s Cube using logarithms.

“Sure”, I told him, “it is your time, make it happen.” 

I observed as the student built a team to help accomplish their new goal. One student pulled the instructions off the Lego website and began to build accordingly. Soon, the programming needed to be tackled and another student downloaded the software that would be needed to calculate the logarithms.

There I was, still not able to solve the cube, but witnessing what can happen when I, as an educator let go of control and allow the students to have the freedom to discover the solutions for themselves.

During the construction and software downloading & trouble shooting phases there were times of frustration and doubt. This allowed us as a learning community to embrace these frustrations, as part of the process, and to calm down and enjoy the ride.

They became comfortable with setbacks and began to view them as opportunities to seek out solutions individually and as part of team. Soon they had constructed the machine and began programming it manually to make its first move then a second...

Not long after they had committed to this goal - to build a machine to solve the cube, they experienced success! In the small world of our classroom, through goal setting, collaboration, trial and error, they learned a life lesson. Problems have solutions.

This is not about the cube. This is about having the freedom to know what it is you would like to accomplish in this life. This is about the systems you find yourself in, that allow or do not allow you to seek solutions to the goals you have set for yourself. Freedom, choice, fun, opportunity... The internet has allowed us to seek like minded individuals & resources to aid and direct us in accomplishing what it is we want to learn, build, become ... this is about learning how to learn. This was an educator letting go of control. I stepped out of the way, and allotted time to allow students to step up and take on the accountability of finding solutions to problems. It was and is about being able to understand, evaluate, and becoming comfortable with the process, to truly see that goals can be achieved.

So now, what do you want to do?

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Discussions About This Resource

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl's picture

Travis, I really appreciate this piece. Thank you.

One of the things I appreciate is that you show the 'balance' that teachers need to walk between getting out of the way and showing the way. Your reflection about needing to give up control is wise and one of the most common things I hear from colleagues as they make their way into a different type of teaching. ('Exacerbated control tendencies' is definitely an occupational hazard of teaching.) But one of the things I like best about this piece is that you also show what you DO do. (Yes, I know how that sounds when we say it aloud.)

You get out of the way, but you also show the way. You model having learning goals, pursuing them with persistence, taking failure as part of the learning process as it is, seeking ways to find information, mentors, etc. I think the way you make your own learning visible contributes as much as the release of control and is the corollary of how we write with our students and make ourselves visible as writers. So there's double wisdom here.