A new skirmish is emerging in education reform.

Some want students to not only learn how to solve problems but also how to find them. Others fear that training students to seek out problems is creating ruinous pessimism.

There’s a better way forward that splits the difference between the two camps. It relies on ensuring that students develop agency—not learned helplessness—by seeking to make progress in the mold of an American ideal.

My new book, From Reopen to Reinvent, makes the case that schools need to help students learn coherent sequences of content, as well as habits of success and skills like problem-solving. One of the first pushbacks on the skills I listed, however, was from a friendly critic who said I had left out the importance of students learning to be “problem seekers” or “problem finders.”

The camp urging students to not just be problem solvers but also to seek out problems stems from research around the effectiveness of salespeople and those who develop products in business settings. There’s a wide range of adherents.

Daniel Pink wrote about the phenomenon in his 2012 book To Sell Is Human. According to Pink, moving people from problem solvers to problem finders is what unleashes creative breakthroughs.

The CEO of EdLeader21, Ken Kay, who encourages educators to ensure students learn “21st-century skills”—including problem-solving and creativity—argues that problem-finding is a critical competency in his new book, Redefining Student Success.

And Marc Prensky, a speaker and agitator on the future of education, is working to build “empowerment hubs”—enhancements or alternatives to school—to engage students in defining and tackling the problems they see in the world.

At a surface level, this approach makes sense. Equipping students to identify problems in the communities around them allows them to develop critical thinking skills, spot problems of interest, and engage in researching and building creative solutions.

In its best manifestation, students also learn knowledge, solve difficult problems, and develop agency—the ability to influence their circumstances through their direct actions. That, in turn, bolsters their self-efficacy and empowers them.

But Robert Pondiscio, a research fellow at AEI, argued recently there is a downside to a primary focus on finding problems. According to Pondiscio, school curricula and culture “revel in the bad and the broken.”

Pondiscio’s critique isn’t specifically of Pink, Kay, and Prensky. It’s of a system that tells students that adults have failed them. While educators suggest students can fix society’s problems, they are in fact overwhelming students with the problems.

Schools, Pondiscio says, suggest to students that they have been born into a country that is racist, that “democracy is hanging by a thread,” and that “irreversible climate catastrophe” and other pernicious narratives mean they have little chance in the world.

“Small wonder,” Pondiscio wrote in an essay for Commentary, “that children are more depressed and medicated than ever before. A half-century of psychological research indicates that our beliefs about the world shape…our sense of well-being.”

Rather than empower students to solve the world’s problems by alerting them to the many challenges and injustices around them, Pondiscio argues, schools are undermining student agency by paralyzing them into “learned helplessness.”

There is a third way forward that draws on the observations of both camps. It stems from an innovation theory, developed by Bob Moesta and the late Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen, about what causes people to buy different products or services.

This theory—known as Jobs to Be Done—teaches that when people are in a struggling circumstance, it’s not that they always have a problem. Instead, they see that their situation could be improved somehow, so they seek progress in their lives.

When individuals see a viable path to make progress, they look to innovate—often by creating novel solutions and switching behavior. Understanding people’s Jobs to Be Done—their struggles and the outcomes they seek—can unlock progress.

Preparing students to help people make progress, rather than seeking problems, honors the importance of framing and finding areas to improve. But it also reframes the search and narrative from being inherently pessimistic. This isn’t just semantics.

Jobs to Be Done teaches students to dig for knowledge, causality, and context—and to seek ways to unlock opportunity for individuals as they frame progress, regardless of their lot in life. In doing so, it teaches students to exercise agency.

As Ian Rowe, also with AEI and author of the new book, Agency, argues, teaching students that they have no ability to shape outcomes and their context undermines agency. But teaching that surrounding institutions don’t matter is also wrong.

Teaching students to help people make progress also situates that quest in our national narrative. Just as the preamble to America’s Constitution frames the document as being necessary to form a more perfect union, so, too, are quests for progress.

That, in turn, means that America is no longer a problem but a work in progress always seeking to do better. And that frames America as a virtuous country worth learning about and committing to its well-being so that we all can thrive.

This post was originally published on Forbes here.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.