Committing Our Own Crime: COVID, Teachers Designing, Problem Finding, Personal Growth.

(note the FOUR terms after the colon, Sarah. 😉)

I am building on some of my dissertation research on teachers and design. I recently submitted an article on “seeing indeterminacy”–that designers work in spaces with many possible solutions, and recognizing these possibilities is key to their creative success. The next question becomes “how do we help teachers experience and embrace indeterminacy?” Today’s answer: incite a global pandemic.

If you don’t have the terroristic knowledge required to start a pandemic, at least take advantage of one that is already happening. I’ll explain–but it’s going to take a bit of a backstory.

Indeterminacy is related to another concept–that of “problem finding.” Some cool scholars–Getzels and Cskikzentmihayli–studied art students in the 1960s and 1970s, hoping to understand how they worked and what led to success. They found their own problem: the importance of finding a problem. This can be illustrated by considering three types of problems:

  1. Type-case 1: The problem is clear. “Others” know the solution and give a clear path to solving it.
    • Example: A student is given the formula for the area of a rectangle and then asked to find the area of a particular rectangle
    • Primary cognitive function: memory.
  2. Type-case 2: The problem is clear. “Others” know the solution, but don’t offer a clear path to solving it.
    • Example: A student is asked to find the area of a rectangle without being given the formula.
    • Primary cognitive function: reason
  3. Type-case 3: No one–the “other” or the investigator–know the problem or the solution. There’s just a “general task or dilemma”.
    • Example: Given a rectangle, the investigator develops the problem. It could be finding the area, but it could also be finding the distance around it, considering what makes the most aesthetically pleasing rectangle, why we’re even looking at a rectangle, and more.
    • Primary cognitive function: imagination

Einstein and Infeld called type 3 “Committing your own crime”:

For the detective, the crime is given, the problem formulated. Who killed Cock Robin? The scientist must commit his own crime as well as carry out the investigation.

Einstein & Infeld, 1938, p. 76

Getzels and Csikzentmihalyi built on this:

Individuals who approach potentially creative situations with a high concern for discovery–determined to commit their own crime, as it were–should arrive at more original results than individuals who approach the same situation already knowing what needs to be done, how it is to be done, what the outcome must be, and what criteria of rightness and wrongness apply to their work

Getzles & Csikzentmihalyi, 1976, p. 84

Creative growth (and according to their study, later artistic success) comes from working in type-case 3, but it can be difficult to embrace this type of indeterminacy. This is where COVID comes in. Pre-COVID, the teachers and I had a pretty well-defined problem: their students did not show respect for adults, and this needed to be fixed. This was a Type-case 2 problem. However, COVID pushes us deeper and more personally into this problem-solution space, sparking a new type of process:

The process that might lead to a creative solution begins with a diffuse feeling about things not fitting into place, and the first step–probably the crucial one–is an effort to find, that is, pose and formulate, the problem itself

Getzles & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976, p. 84

Although we stuck with the basic feeling that we were addressing–challenges they were having with students–the teachers were no longer “managing” students every day, and they needed to reconsider the problem. COVID made situation feel different, a “diffuse feeling about things not fitting into place.” We needed to become problem finders:

To turn from a problem solver into a problem finder one must feel that there is a challenge needing resolution in the environment, one must formulate this feeling as a problem, and then attempt to devise appropriate methods for solving it.

Getzles & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976, p. 81

Through an exploration of literature about student behavior, we came across the idea of “relatedness”–that students benefit from feeling connected to peers and adults—and this became our new crime: students don’t feel this sense of relatedness. How do we address that?

This was not a “right” problem. It was one of many potential (indeterminate) problems. But it was one that was felt: we ourselves were having to put a lot of effort into feeling related to others because we were isolated at home, on Zoom. It helped us consider how students must feel and what a sense of relatedness means. It was a good problem to explore.

Of course, there were more re-framings as we went. We considered relatedness as working with others to accomplish a task, feeling gratitude to others, and more. But the point is that the pandemic, with it’s upheaval, helped us destabilize the problem and pushed us to formulate our own. And, IMO, working in this way can help teachers develop a more effective and personally-satisfying practice.