Backwards Engineering: When the Solution dictates the Problem

The path that runs from a complex problem to its possible solutions could be likened (at the risk of oversimplifying) to a tree structure where movement flows from the most fundamental problem out towards a series of smaller related problems and from each of these to a number of potential solutions. Satisfactory decision-making in complex situations often requires keeping a number of possibilities open and adopting several solutions. Whatever the choice, pursuing one or more smaller, related problems and there possible solutions results in a large number of other problems and potential solutions ceasing to be considered. Particular difficulties arise when the solution takes on a life of its own in such a way that it begins to dictate the perception of the problem rather it being an answer to the problem. From this perspective, no other solution is possible because the solution is both the starting point and the goal. Taken to its extreme, the solution is created with only a tenuous link to a particular problem and then its creators seek to suggest how it might be used to solve any number of problems. This is often the case with technological developments. But what if the problem to which our solution corresponds is not the pertinent problem in our situation and we need to retrace our steps back towards the underlying problem and find other paths to other solutions? If this sounds abstract and complicated, maybe an example wil help understand.

Martina’s problem

A group of colleagues working in educational policy-making have come together to help each other find solutions to policy problems related to the use of ICT in education. One of the members of the group, Martina, volunteers to take the plunge and describe a problem that she currently needs to solve. After due thought, she e-mails the rest of the group that the problem that besets her organisation is the need to encourage teachers to use modular software that includes not just course material but also suggestions for suitable ways of assessing results. They currently use a simple database system to note down and share ideas about assessment related to online learning resources, but it is rather clumsy and not compatible with international standards. Martina has been involved in work on international educational standards as well as innovative forms of assessment for a number of years and is conversant with the latest technical solutions for online educational resources. She argues that the use of modular software incorporating ideas for assessment alongside learning resources will be a far more efficient solution. When the group meet face-to-face for a daylong seminar, they begin by listening to her explanation of her problem and its context. Jerry, one of the participants who specialises in curriculum development, asks her why teachers require the additional information about assessment methods. It transpires that she judges that teachers are employing old-fashioned methods that are not appropriate to the use of ICT. Another group member, Mary, who works on in-service teacher development, raises the question of teacher training: surely that has a role to play in helping teachers develop new assessment methods. Martina has to agree, but she points out that it is not relevant to the problem they have with educational resources and assessment methods. But what if her colleagues are right? What if the problem lies with teachers, their attitudes and their working conditions? Or what if it lies in the rigidity and biases of the overarching assessment schemes in schools? If either of those are the case, the technological fix may well not solve the problem.

But what if the problem is elsewhere?

Martina is convinced that the problem she is confronted with begins and ends in providing suitable assessment means in conjunction with related online resources. The problem she has chosen to submit to the group, understandably you might say, coincides with her interest and knowledge about leading-edge software and new forms of assessment. The solution to her problem appears self-evident to her. Even in her e-mail about the problem to her colleagues prior to their meeting, she already pointed to what she thought was a probable solution. During their seminar she brushes aside suggestions from her colleagues that other issues might be pertinent. But what if there really is a deeper problem that remains unanswered? Judging from what she says to her colleagues about the out-dated assessment methods of teachers, the problem does not lie only in the difficulties of providing such modular resources. That is only part of a possible solution to a deeper problem: the difficulties her teachers have with developing new forms of assessment that fit new pedagogical methods related to ICT use. This in turn may be due to a number of factors like the rigidity of the overall assessment system or the inappropriateness of available course for teacher development. It would seem that she takes what she sees to be the solution for the problem. As a result, she cuts herself off from seeing other solutions that may be more appropriate to the deeper problem that she is no longer prepared or able to consider.

The backwards engineer

The “backwards enginerring” approach to problem solving is rarely adopted deliberately. Martina is not maliciously seeking to mislead her colleagues. Such an attitude often goes unnoticed by those adopting it. Their apparent refusal to retrace their steps and challenge the assumptions and choices they and others have made along the way can have various origins. It may be, as is probably the case with Martina, due to the wish to capitalise on personal experience and knowledge or to be reassured by familiar ground. One of the merits of peer-exchange is that it enables synergies between differing expert perspectives and counteracts the potential bias of one expert perspective over all others. Another reason for such an attitude may be the will to increase or ensure personal influence by shifting discussion into one’s own field of expertise. To be able to broach such a sensitive subject, any form of peer learning requires a supporting and trusting relationship between participants. A further justification for such an attitude may be the “pressure” of work and the professed lack of time that pleads against “wasting” time by reconsidering what seems self-evident. Urgency is often put forward as an excuse for hasty, if not sloppy decisions. There are even those who make a point of systematically preferring action over reflection. There are no doubt many further explanations, but it may simply be that the prevalence of “backwards engineering” in problem solving is due to its ease of use and its own self-justifying dynamic which outweigh the inappropriateness of the solutions developed. A bit like children who find their path more easily through a labyrinth on paper by tracing their way back from the goal to the starting point, working backwards from a solution that appeals to us is enticing.

Whatever the reasons that justify the “Backwards engineer” in his or her approach to problem solving, the result of what amounts to identifying the problem to fit the solution when a deeper problem persists and remains unanswered, can lead to a great waste of time and money, not to mention a serious loss of motivation and good will of many of those involved, if not considerable damage.

Emotional Intelligence

“An eagle is nested on the top of my head. I can have him soar up above me whenever I want and his vision from those heights is a part of me. At all times, I have to stay linked to him by an invisible thread of light…”
Freely adapted from Henri Gougaud’s, Les Sept Plumes de l’Aigle (Seuil, Paris, 1995).

The following text owes much to Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence”. I am also very much indebted to my two children, Zoé and Iannis, who are daily confronted with the refusal of school to take into consideration their emotional abilities and difficulties.
See also an Emotional Intelligence in Schools and Emotional skills on the Internet. You might also like to read Are we learning or just managing competences? and Prayer – going beyond emotional intelligence.

Our perception of the relationship between thought and emotions turns out to be somewhat misguided. The majority of us tacitly subscribe to the idea that thought is most appropriate when not clouded by emotions. And, sure enough, strong emotions make it difficult to think straight. Rationalists have even made the elimination of emotion from thought their credo. Yet, clinical experiments show that thought devoid of emotions renders satisfactory decision-making impossible. The problem is not with emotions as such, but with the appropriateness of emotion and its expression. The task is not so much to suppress emotions – every feeling has its value and significance – but to strike a balance between rational thought and emotions. One of the keys to sound decision-making is a greater awareness of our emotions and those of others. Emotions are not just present when we fly off the handle or jump for joy, but are omnipresent in the most subtle ways in all our acts. How often are we in the sway of our emotions without even realising it? The message of El Chura in the quote above from Henri Gougaud’s book points to the need for a vigilant self-awareness at all times, not to be mistaken for a rigid self-control.

Emotional talent our society can’t afford to waste

At present, the emotional education of our children is left to chance. What does school teach them about emotions? Academic intelligence has little to do with emotional life. Based on rationality, school pays little or no attention to emotions lest they disrupt the class. Academic intelligence offers no preparation for the emotional turmoil of life. On the contrary school disparages emotional intelligence! Many of the natural abilities of children are not in handling complex mathematical calculations or memorising ancient history but rather in perceiving and understanding inherent emotional situations. Others are naturally gifted in handling relationships. Who could be so arrogant as to insist that academic knowledge is that much more important than emotional intelligence? Yet such is the case, to the extent that many emotionally gifted children leave school feeling like failures because they didn’t have the necessary marks in languages or mathematics! Our society can’t afford to waste their talent!

The murky picture

In a world increasingly centred on the unbridled satisfaction of individual needs, many people feel entitled to let free reign to their emotions without paying the slightest heed to the impact on those around them. Cut off from others in their individualism, some are victims of melancholy from which they can only escape with the help of cigarettes, drink or drugs. All of us are subject to ever increasing pressure as change accelerates and more and more aspects of life become uncertain. We are asked to be flexible, to learn to adapt. Yet being flexible is not so easy when fear and anxiety are just round the corner. At the same time, emotions such as stress, anxiety and anger in large doses are known to have serious adverse effects on physical health. How can we cope with such an apparently helpless situation?

There is a light!

There is a general feeling that, except in cases of excess when therapy is called for, there is little we can do about our emotions unless it be to swallow them or to vent them on those around us. Yet something can be done! We are not condemned to be eternal slaves to our ill-placed, seemingly unpredictable emotions or those of others. Basic skills related to handling emotions, settling disagreements peaceably and just plain getting along can be learnt or improved on. If we wish, we can develop human competencies such as self-awareness, self-control and empathy, and the arts of listening, resolving conflicts and co-operation. Not only is our ability at work and the quality of our life at home and at play at stake but also more generally the cohesion of society at large.

Read about introducing emotional intelligence in schools and about the emotional skills on the Internet. You might also like to read Are we learning or just managing competences? and Prayer – going beyond emotional intelligence

For further information about Emotional Intelligence:
Emotional Intelligence Services, – information, resources, tools and an online test of Emotional Intelligence, including insights from Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence.