Learning from the Wright Brothers - Frame the Right Problem

This article from Cathy Sanford recently crossed my Twitter feed.  People who have spent time with me know I am obsessed with the Wright brothers and the analogy their work provides for how we might change the way we solve problems in education.  In fact, I use the Wright brothers story to launch most of my professional development, I have recorded videos discussing their accomplishments for my online class, and I have written about their problem-solving approach and the relevance to education.   Of course, I was intrigued and excited to see Ms. Sanford’s article. 

Although I see the lesson for education from the Wright brothers’ story differently, Ms. Sanford’s article does, in my opinion, capture the many of the behaviors that the Wright brothers exhibit that we can learn from.  Ms. Sanford frames her article by arguing that that the Wright Brothers’ approach to solving the problem of flight is like a framework she has published for personalization in schools (called Pathway to Personalization).  Ms. Sanford identifies five key “alignments” between the Wright brothers’ scientific approach and the Pathways to Personalization Framework:

1.       The Wright brothers started with research.

2.       The Wright brothers focused on a central challenge (control).

3.       The Wright brothers tested theories along the way.

4.       The Wright brothers innovated when they had to.

5.       The Wright brothers approach mitigated risk with small iterations.

These are certainly characteristics of the Wright brothers’ approach to solving the problem of heavier than air powered flight. 

Yet, I see the analogy different from Ms. Sanford.  I think the attributes of the Wright brothers’ approach are necessary for solving problems and we should be trying to behave more like the Wright brothers, but I think Ms. Sanford has framed the wrong problem.  Based on looking at the Pathways to Personalization website and the Highlander Institute website, I notice that what they are doing is trying “to help school leaders and teacher teams design and implement blended and personalized learning initiatives based on local needs and interests.”  In short, the problem identified by Sanford here is “how to scale personalized learning in schools.”  Personalized learning should be viewed as a potential solution worth testing, not a solution that needs to be scaled (not Sanford’s word – mine). 

As the Wright brothers proved, framing the problem is core to success.  The Wright brothers focused on controlling the airplane once it was in the air, while others focused on building a powerful engine.  In Ms. Sanford’s article she identifies three core problems:

1.       unravel centuries of established classroom and school structures

2.       update pedagogy and curriculum to reflect 21st century competencies

3.       reverse deeply entrenched inequities in our education system

Of those, only the last is a problem worth solving because it is measurable and open-ended (although I would frame it differently).  The first two “problems” listed are barriers to change that Highlander Institute (and others) desire, but are process oriented, not improvement oriented.  It is a broad statement that alludes to a solution but leaves the problem unframed.  When I see those listed as the problems, I worry that the end is to “disrupt” the system without an understanding the consequences.  To “unravel centuries of established classroom and school structures” is an incredibly bold proposition, which makes me wonder about the lesson from the Wright brothers regarding mitigated risk.  And seems to contradict what Ms. Sanford writes near the end of her piece, “There must be high confidence and a strong evidence base before embarking on major change.”

Start by framing a problem – not a solution in search of a problem, but a measurable problem worth solving from a classroom, school, or district.    If we frame the problem clearly, then we are can run tests to learn what might work.  For example, Ms. Sanford mentions that the Wright brothers built a wind tunnel because they realized that lift calculations were not accurate.  The Wrights had a problem, they proposed solutions, they tested potential solutions, and they found the solution.  It will never be this clean when trying to solve learning or equity issues in schools, but the point is that the problem should be framed in terms of outcomes for students, not in whether the preferred solutions in being implemented.