Ready to Raft

At the risk of once again incurring the wrath of Jenn Binis,1return to the topic of education commentary from writer and marketing guru Seth Godin.

In a recent episode of his Akimbo podcast, Godin discusses the idea of teaching kids to solve problems, as opposed to them simply memorizing and recycling facts.

When I wrote Stop Stealing Dreams several years ago, in it I put that there are two things we ought to teach kids to do in school. One is to lead and the second is to solve interesting problems.

And I’ve been surprised through the years at how many people have asked “how do we find interesting problems for our kids to solve?”.

I realized that “solve interesting problems” has three challenges. Solve. Interesting. And problems. So I wanted to talk for a few minutes about what it means to work on interesting problems.

In the monologue that follows, Godin acknowledges that “solve” is probably poor phrasing since most truly interesting problems rarely have one solution. Or they are part of a larger interconnected network of issues. He also spends some time on what makes a problem “interesting”.

However, what Godin doesn’t address is the idea of why we should be “giving” students the problems in the first place.

For decades, even centuries, teachers have assigned work for students to complete. For their students, the biggest “problem” is often determining the key steps they must take to satisfy the teacher’s requirements. And too often these “problems” are not especially interesting.

So, coming back to the question of how do we find interesting problems for our kids to solve, the simple answer is: ask them.

Ask students what puzzles them about the world around them. What issues do you think are important? What are some problems your community is facing that you feel passionate about solving?

Kids, especially by the time they reach middle school, are often very aware of what’s happening in the world around them, and have a good idea of what they find interesting. Many are already thinking about the contributions they can make to their family and communities. Maybe even about their place in the wider world. School should primarily be about developing their skills to do that kind of interesting problem solving.

Which is not to say that teachers should just turn students loose to do whatever they want. An understanding of the process needed to solve complex problems is not something people are born with. Kids still need adults to help them get organized, find a focus, and learn to narrow their thinking. And to connect them with people, organizations, and sources outside the school who can help.

So, I agree with Godin that kids need to work on interesting problems during their time in school. Just not the packaged, interesting-to-adults, kind of problems he is probably thinking of.

Plus, when students are encouraged to work on the topics they find interesting and challenging, they will also be learning something about leadership. A two-fer.


One way to learn problem solving is to jump in the boat and shove off into the rapids. Ok, maybe having a qualified instructor might be a good idea as well.

1. Not so much “wrath” as a stern Twitter challenge and good discussion. :-)