Not a door guy

July 26, 2008

Taken from Professor Simon Penny’s collection of sundry words of wisdom. Somehow it feels appropriate today:

During the renovation of buildings for the ACE program, a man was sent to fix a problem with a door. When I encountered him he was enlarging a hole in a the door with a grinder so the lock would latch. I looked at the door and noted that that door was not latching because the screws holding the hinges to the door-frame had corroded and the door had dropped. I pointed this out to him, and suggested that he replace the screws in the hinges. He looked at me with pathetic incomprehension and said “I’m a lock guy, I’m not a door guy.” There is an appalling profundity in this response. It succinctly captures the kind of narrow thinking which ACE works against. In institutions of higher learning, emphasis is commonly placed on ‘problem solving’ as if problems were self-evidently lying about just waiting to be picked up. But in order to be solved, a problem must first be identified and framed. In the real world, problems seldom observe disciplinary borders. ‘Problem framing’ requires a kind of intellectual process which is diametrically opposed to ‘problem solving.’ It requires the ability to grapple with incongruities and incompatibilities and discontinuities. In my opinion, we are good at teaching the deductive processes of problem solving, but this only permits students to solve already framed ‘textbook’ problems. Self evidently, it is more important to ask the right question than to get the right answer. Except in isolated and informal pockets, we seem to be bad at teaching the process of asking the right question.