Navigating Complexity: When 1st Order Solutions Create 2nd Order Problems

Here’s a common classroom problem.

As I’m explaning a complex concept, a student raises a hand.

“Just a moment,” I say, and finish my explanation.

Now I turn and smile at the student: “what was your question?” I ask.

All too often, the student answers, “I forgot my question.”

What’s going on here?

As is so often the case, the answer is: working memory overload.

Working memory HOLDS and PROCESSES information. When a student fails to hold and process, that’s working memory overload.

A primary school student wearing a backpack and sitting at a desk raises an eager hand.

In this case, my student was processing my explanation, and so failed to hold the question.

The solution?

It might seem simple. Don’t ask students to hold questions while they process explanations.

Instead, I should answer students’ questions right away. Problem solved….

When Solutions Create Problems

Wait just a moment.

This “solution” I just offered might solve the student’s problem.

At the same time, it might create new problems.

The student’s question — even a well-intentioned one — might throw my explanation off track.

My students might lose their tentative understanding of my complex explanation.

I might lose my own train of thought.

So I fixed one classroom problem but now have yet another one. YIKES.

What’s a teacher to do?

First Things First

This example — but one of many — might throw our entire project into question.

Teachers turn to psychology and neuroscience to solve classroom problems.

However, if these “research-based solutions” simply transform one problem into some other headache, why bother with the research?

We could save time by sticking with the old problem, right?

I think the fair answer to that question is: “actually, no.” Here’s why…

Teachers don’t need research to solve classroom problems. We need research to solve COMPLEX classroom problems.

When our classroom problems are simple, we just solve them on our own. We are — after all — teachers! We specialize in problem solving.

For that reason, we turn to research only when the problem isn’t simple.

And for that reason, we shouldn’t be surprised when the answer isn’t simple either.

OF COURSE we can’t fix the “questions-interrupting-my-explanation” problem with one easy research-based step.

If it were so simple a problem, we would have solved it without the research.

Changing the Lens

As I’ve explored this question with wise teachers in recent weeks, I’ve been struck by a pattern:



And: it’s often true that PROBLEM TWO comes from a different cognitive function than PROBLEM ONE.

So, in the example above, I started with a working memory problem: my student coudn’t hold and process information.

My solution (“take questions right away”) created another problem — but not a working memory problem.

When I answer questions mid-explanation, my students lose focus. That is, the working memory problem has been transformed into an attention problem.

To solve this second problem, I need to switch from working memory solutions to attention solutions.

In other words, I need to think about a separate cognitive function. I’ll find solutions to this 2nd order problem in a different research field.

Again with the Mantra

If you’ve ever heard me speak at a Learning and the Brain conference, you know my mantra: “don’t just do this thing; instead, think this way.”

In other words: psychology research can’t provide teachers with a list of “best practices.” The strategy that works in my 10th grade English classroom at a boarding school might not help 1st graders add numbers in a Montessori program.

But: the thought process I follow with my 10th graders might lead to beneficial solutions for those 1st graders. The answer (“do this thing”) might be different, but the mental pathway (“think this way”) will be the same.

The point I’m making here is: these thought processes might require us to leap from mental function to mental function in search of a more successful solution.

A solution to a long-term memory problem might uncover a motivational problem.

The solution to an alertness problem might promt an orienting problem.

When I reduce my students’ stress, I might ramp up their working memory difficulties.

And so forth.

When we understand research into all these topics, we can anticipate that these solutions might unveil an entirely different set of troubles.

And by moving nimbly from research topic to research topic, we can ultimately solve that complex problem that once seemed intractable.

All this nimbling about takes practice. And, ironically, it might threaten our own working memory capacity.

But once we get used to thinking this new way, we will arrive at solutions that fit our classrooms, and that work.

category: L&B Blog

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