Watch out for the Obvious Answer

Sometimes problems have obvious solutions. But great innovation requires you to solve things in non-obvious ways: so, you should be careful with obvious solutions, because they rarely lead to effective innovation. The best answers should always feel slightly wrong.

Standardisation in Education

We all see the world through our enculturated lens. That is: we all jump to solving problems in certain ways based on a vague, culturally-framed understanding of the problem and a culturally-framed solution to that problem. This cultural framing allows us to avoid frame problems in our everyday lives. This means we can exist as competent agents in that world.

But innovation requires, and results in, the changing of culture. That is, innovation changes the way we view problems and the sorts of solutions we propose in response to them.

Here's an example: let's go back to a time before the telephone existed. We receive a telegram about the sickness of a relative, but it's vague and non-specific. Because it's quicker to go visit that relative in-person than to send a telegram for more information, and wait to receive a response, we'll go visit our relative. The problem is a lack of information about the person. Our solution, framed by our culture, is to go visit that person to get information about them. Our culture places heavy value on the in-person aspect. Our culture binds together the retrieval of information concerning unknowns and the effort of being near the source of information in person.

Now let's jump to a time where the telephone does exist. The problem feels similar: we need information about that person. But we're no longer constrained to needing to be around that person to get that information rapidly. Our culture prizes rapid information about our relative, but prizes the in-person aspect less. Our solution is to give their doctor a call, maybe, and find out. Then we'll decide if we need to go see them in-person. Our culture has dictated our framing of the problem and the solution. The innovation of the telephone has changed our cultural framing of both.

How can we validate that education is working well?

Education is in dire need of innovation. But most education 'innovation' relies on doing things that feel culturally comfortable. That is: the "raising of standards", and the increase in standardised testing. In my opinion, this is a dead end: standardisation feels like the obvious solution to a culturally-framed problem.

We frame the problem as: how can we validate that education is working well? And the obvious solution is 'we test, in a way that eliminates extraneous variables, that education is working well'. But this problem is framed wrong. And the solution is framed wrongly too. The danger is that it feels deeply right.

Feeling wrong

When innovating, we need to feel slightly wrong. We need to reduce problems to first principles, and go beyond them. In education, this means reframing the problem. And the reframing will feel wrong, somehow. Here's my suggested reframing:

How can we ensure that everyone is maximising their potential learning?

Avoid the impulse to say "surely if education is working well, everyone will be maximising their potential learning". This isn't necessarily true. For one, you assume that education means learning, when there is plenty of evidence that, depending on your definition of education, this correlation doesn't exist.

The solution to this problem is very hard to see. To solve it, we really need to spend time dissecting the problem further. What do we mean by 'everyone'? Just those who want to learn, or others too? How do we find out who wants to learn, and who doesn't? Do those categories even exist? What do we mean by 'potential'? 'Learning' is a thorny one too: can we assess for that? Should we be trying to? And then there's 'maximising'. That sounds like it could be numericised, but can it be? What would that look like?

Rejecting what came before

Sometimes, to avoid the obvious answer, you need to expressly reject the kinds of solutions that came before. We can't necessarily solve the problem stated above with increased testing and assessment. In fact, constraining our thinking along those lines will only make it harder to genuinely transform the question: to innovate.


Creativity thrives when problems are clearly expressed and constrained. That takes a lot of time to do, and it's frustrating - because humans are very bad at understanding that the framing of problems is related to the effective solubility of that problem.

Once you have a really clear set of problems – with every aspect clearly validated – you can start to think of innovative solutions to that problem. The extraction and clarifying of the problem space is one of the key innovations of Agile. It says: stop trying to solve vague problems. That might feel like the obvious thing to do, but it's the wrong thing to do. Instead, spend ages trying to understand the problem in detail, and validate that the problem looks like you think it looks. Then turn your head to solutions. This is hard to do, because you're enculturated to solve problems fast. But remove that cultural framing where you can, and suspend the problem-solving for later. This 'feeling wrong' and 'avoiding the obvious path' is one of the ways in which Agile thinking is innovative.

Great Creative Thinking is highly purposeful. It aims to resolve a clear problem in ways that feel non-obvious. To solve the problems in education, we don't need more standardisation, more effective testing, more ties to industry-esque assessments, or greater teacher effort. We need non-obvious solutions – ones that feel wrong.

I don't have the solutions yet, but these guidelines are helpful. If I feel the urge to pop a test in to assess our students at Makers Academy, I resist it. I try to figure out what we're really trying to solve for. I'd like to see that level of thoughtfulness echoed across more educational bodies, so we can develop more effective solutions together: and advance our culture in new, positive directions.