Big problems require small solutions

While co-hosting the TEDxNYED event last week, I found myself wondering how the amazing solutions I was hearing could spread. How could we get more students connecting globally like Brian Crosby’s kids; how could more at-risk students be freed from the assessment and curriculum that failed them so they could excel like the students Gary Stager worked with in the Maine prison; how could every urban school be part of an urban garden network teaching youth and the community about low cost, healthy food… the list was endless.

It struck me that day – some problems are so big they need small solutions.

I heard several people say after these talks – “Yes, sure, that was great, BUT IS IT SCALABLE?”

I’d always considered that a reasonable question. But now, I think it’s a rhetorical trick that really means. “CAN IT FIT INTO THE CURRENT SYSTEM?”

Scalable should mean replication. Can you do “it” – whatever “it” is, over and over again. And the answer is yes, you can have urban gardens, do away with 19th century curriculum, and have globally connected classrooms IF you let the conditions flourish on the ground level. IF you let the teachers teach and the students learn. IF you let the solution be a small solution, carried out at a human scale. IF it remains a local, adaptable solution that meets the needs of the participants, not the system. The proof of that was given by Dennis Littky of the Big Picture Schools, who has started over 60 schools that value each and every student. That’s scalability.

But it doesn’t mean you impose a solution from above, put layers of bureaucracy and administration on it, and add untold costs in demanding that everyone do the same thing. We are just used to doing things that way in American education and we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s cheaper, more efficient, and the American Way. It’s not. Every problem is not a moonshot or the same as building interstate highways. Learning is certainly not.

Big problems require small solutions. And they demand we trust in the human beings implementing those solutions. My thought for the day.


PS – The videos from TEDxNYED are not up on the site yet – when they are, I’ll link them up to the examples in this post.

11 Replies to “Big problems require small solutions”

  1. I responded to another post this week where the author was asking the same question “is it scalable”?. He wasn’t impressed with any of the solutions offered at TEDxNYED because they didn’t seem “scalable”.
    In my mind that is exactly what is wrong with education today, that it is a one size fits all and if you are a different sort of person you are labeled as not fitting in and needing some kind of “differentiation”.
    What is wrong with teaching to the individual?
    I have been thinking these same thoughts as you write about all week.

  2. This is such an important point for all to consider and share. I’m currently part of a “strategic task force” in my home district where it seems they are searching for large scale solutions of how they approach three areas, communication, parental involvement and technology. Many of the districts I work in are using the word “enterprise solutions” when addressing needs for their teachers and students. I’ve even heard that some don’t want grassroots efforts, seeing that they would be counterproductive to what the administration is trying to layout.

    I’d be understating it if I told you I was beyond frustrated with the rhetoric and administrative BS. My biggest fear is that the small solutions (i.e. Math & Inventor’s Playshops with TurtleArt and Picocrickets) will be yanked from underneath me in lieu of more IWB or data software training.

  3. Tracy, seems quite contradictory doesn’t it? Districts touting that they are offering “differentiated instruction”, but then seeking the “scalable” solution. I’m wondering if school leaders even listen to themselves, worse yet, know they are contradicting themselves and go on with it anyway.

  4. Any time I hear the word scalable in regards to ed reform my spidey senses tingle. I think you’re absolutely right- it is not the right question for education. It happens all the time- you take a successful program in one school, plop it in another, and it fails. Why? Because you can’t scale the people up that worked to make it successful in the first place. And education is a people business.

    If anything, I think the only thing we should be scaling up is the notion of unscaleability…

  5. Like I said, I just recently came to realize that “is it scalable” is not a question, it’s a sneaky hammer blow of death, neatly delivered in what sounds like a reasonable, business-minded way.

  6. I’ve been guilty of the “it doesn’t scale” thinking in the past…apologies. ;0) But it’s so hard to see a path to a world where innovation and diversity in approaches is embraced that I think we want to find “the” solution. It’s more complicated than that, I know, but my sense is that a very small % of the education world can even entertain the idea of a world without one “system.” Frustrating.

    The bigger problem is that not enough educators have gone through the personal shift or change or exploration that I think ultimately will lead to those solutions that will work for our kids. People feel powerless because they don’t have a personal context for what solutions look like.

  7. Possibly it should be “can it be replicated?” It seems to me that frequently success stories are due to the enthusiasm of the group heading the project. If a new group attempts it without the same kind of drive, are they as likely to succeed?

    Actually, that’s still a KOD question. How about, “What conditions do we need to make this work?”

  8. Will – I think as Americans we all have been trained to “think big” and search for the magic wand that will fix all problems, all at once, perfectly and forever. I think it stalls us when smaller solutions are easily found.

    Alicia -Yes, it does take people who are passionate to make this work, it always does. I think we underestimate our own abilities.

  9. This blog post and resulting comments are perfect fodder for discussion amongst our team at work. As “Learning Technologies Coordinators”, the concept of scalability often finds its way into our meetings. We’re in Canada, Sylvia, but fall into many of the same philosophical/financial traps you do in the US.

    Will, I think your second paragraph combines nicely with Alicia’s comments about drive & enthusiasm. These are key to “replicability”.

    Alicia, I love your rewording of the question.

    Off to share this post with my colleagues! Thanks so much for bringing your aha moment to the rest of us.


  10. I work with Sandra and this strand/conversation about ‘scalability’ is one which does causes many operational challenges which then lead to tension between the IT department and the Curriculum Program staff. Often when we were work in our large school district we have run successful pilots on a small scale. Scale and replication of course become the next major hurdle and usually where the momentum and excitement completely slow down and we have real challenges moving beyond the various pilot phases.

    I would agree with Will’s comment that “not enough educators have gone through the personal shift or change or exploration that I think will ultimately lead to these solutions that will work for kids.” I would like to add further that what we (the educators/curriculum specialists) need to find ways to develop and change our meetings and working environments that foster ’21 St Century Learning Skills’ that can be modeled for the Technical Support Analysists and their Supervisors. The thinking being that perhaps by taking part in a “research based inquiry using a Self Organized Learning Environment” the IT folks might see the value in supporting a piece of technology such as a large touch screen monitor, instead of saying ‘well they seem expensive and I really don’t need a touch screen monitor to get my work done in the IT department”.

    In our school board I hope the curriculum leaders can continue to maintain and grow a positive working atmosphere where the technical management teams are actively working under the umbrella of a moral imperative to help find different solutions to student learning environments that provide variety of working solutions that can be supported at our system level.

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