During my freshman year in college, a professor shared his unique perspective with our class: “There are no problems, only solutions.” I didn’t fully understand what he meant at the time, and perhaps because my mind mulled it over so many times during that semester, his phrase stuck. Now, more than thirty years later, I find myself encouraging a similar philosophy with the teachers in my school. Why? Because I believe some of the best learning happens when students can view the uncertainties that arise when considering complex problems not as barriers, but as opportunities to learn some of life’s biggest lessons. Or another way to put it, students deserve the chance to tackle challenging tasks with clear learning outcomes and just enough support to help them transform problems into solutions. And when they do, students become more comfortable with uncertainty—a very useful quality in today’s world.
To do this, teachers may want to unplan their lessons. In other words, teachers may encourage explorations that don’t have a planned outcome but instead focus on problems that could be solved in a variety of ways. And once students come up with their original solutions, teachers can give them time to debate which solution is most accurate and has the highest probability of success.
Of course, this also requires teachers to assign tasks that can be very intellectually demanding. For example, when asking students to complete a story in a particular author’s style, students will need lots of encouragement and feedback along the way. But if students are to turn problems into solutions, they need to be comfortable with the uncertainty of a complex challenge that has many possible outcomes and then begin to generate a path forward. Thirty years later, I think I know what my professor meant.