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Not Just Problem Solving But Problem Identification

One of things that I see students struggle with the most in doing research is question and topic identification. A big portion of the time I spend helping students with their research is spent helping them identify and define what their question is and what problem they want to address. I use techniques like mind-mapping to help students break apart their problem and start asking the right questions. Traditionally the work of librarians has been more focused on problem-solving. “Where do I look for information on human rights?” But increasingly, problem identification is becoming a skill necessary for students to master as they move into a world and economy built on creativity and innovation.

Dan Pink, the author of Drive and most recently To Sell is Human, talks about this importance of problem identification:

“The premium has moved from problem solving to problem finding as a skill,” Pink said. “Right now, especially in the commercial world, if I know exactly what my problem is, I can find the solution to my own problem. I don’t need someone to help me. Where I need help is when I don’t know what my problem is or when I’m wrong about what my problem is. Problem solving is an analytical, deductive kind of skill. The phrase ‘problem finding’ comes out of research on artists. It’s more of a conceptual kind of skill.”

This is a skill that can be hard to learn and especially hard to teach, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. It’s a lot easier to teach how to search a database or how to properly cite, but teaching students how to ask the right questions and identify problems will better prepare them for the world they’re entering.

A real world example of problem discovery comes from the folks at the design firm IDEO. In this this video, the CEO Tom Kelley talks about redesigning a toothbrush for children. Based on observation and asking the right questions they are able to see the problem in a new light and design a brush that not only tops sales but fits children perfectly. By finding the right problems and asking the right questions the solutions that follow are going be exponentially better.

This skill of asking the right questions and identifying the right problems to solve is something librarians should definitely be teaching our students. It can be done both in the classroom and at the reference desk. What are ways that you teach this skill?

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Librarians: Ultimate Inter-Disciplinarians

We’ve been having a lot of students coming in recently working on a really challenging literature review assignment for their junior year Core classes (interdisciplinary common curriculum). They often need 20-40 sources about some technology related to globalization in human rights. This task often seems overwhelming to the students who come for help. But I have started using a really effective method to help students focus and get them to start structuring and planning their paper.

image via Richard Scott 33 on Flickr

I’ve begun using mind-mapping as a tool at the reference desk to get students to break their topic down into different pieces and begin seeing the connections between ideas from across disciplines. Once students actually see their topic broken down on a piece of paper it begins to take shape for them and they begin to feel a lot less overwhelmed. 20 or more sources doesn’t seem as daunting when they are about  various aspects of the same topic.

Making connections is one of the things librarians do best. We’re the ultimate inter-disciplinarians. I admire people who have deep, rich subject knowledge and are experts in their fields, but I could never concentrate on just one thing like logical positivism or Emerson. The reason I got into librarianship is because I’m interested in a lot of different things. I read about and explore a variety of subjects from psychology and philosophy, to business and education, to science, space and dinosaurs. I got into librarianship because I’m curious, and want to further the cause of human curiosity.

We see, and help others see, connections that they might miss due to tunnel vision or simply being too immersed in the problem. If their topic is social media we might ask about the cultural or marketing impacts. If their topic is women and human rights we might bring up the recent example of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan. If their interested in biomedical technology we might mention nanobots or bring up possible ethical issues.

The silos of different disciplines continue to increasingly break down to solve 21st century problems that can’t be solved with a single way of thinking. In this environment, librarians will be well positioned to help people make these important connections between science and anthropology, between psychology and economics, not to mention previously unexplored connections between information problems and solutions. The world isn’t separated along clear fault lines, it’s richly interconnected. And being able to make those connections are skills that we can provide and help teach our students, so they can go out and solve the big problems.

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Change Drivers in Higher Education

I just began taking another MOOC called the Current/Future State of Higher Education (CFHE2012). I’ve already talked about why librarians should join a MOOC, and this one is really relevant to our work. It has to do with the change taking place in higher education. It’s also not simply a linear course but uses connectivist learning where participants create knowledge as opposed to simply consuming it. The first week has been focusing on the different tensions in higher education and factors driving change. In my view, after doing the reading and watching the webinars, some of the most prominent are:

Value

The value that institutions of higher education provides is being called into question by parents, students, and society. Books like Academically Adrift ask the question, “Are students actually learning?” Consumers of higher ed are asking if huge costs and crushing student loan debt are worth it, especially as less new grads are finding jobs. A question that those in higher education need to be asking is, “how can we better demonstrate value and what are the places that we provide significant value over other options?” Jordan Weissman argues that professional help, formative experiences, a seal of approval for businesses are still things that students cannot get other places. I would say that experience as a whole is the main advantage for higher education. A degree is not simply a stamp of approval or a ticket to a job, but a life changing experience.

Increasing Options

Students now have more choice than ever in their education: two year schools, four year schools, public, private, for profit, certificates, free online classes, MOOCs, learning communities. More than ever, students are mixing and matching different pieces of their education, and in this way education is becoming unbundled. It is no longer a single package like an album, but much more customized like a playlist. Now instead of institutions vying just for a student, they are vying for a piece of that student whether it’s the sophomore transfer student or a student needing continuing education.

Changing Perspectives on What Higher Education Should Be

With the various disruptive factors at work today in the world — the economic slowdown, ever-increasing connectivity, high costs of education, political polarization, etc. — more and more questions are being raised about the role of higher education. Is it a means to a job or is it to help produce thoughtful engaged citizens? Is it a public good or a private good? Should higher education be accessible to everyone globally or only the elite who can afford it? Are those seeking higher education consumers or are they students? The way that we answer those questions, and the other questions we ask are going to dictate where we put our energy and what is really important in higher education.

I am really enjoying the class, readings, and videos so far and I’m looking forward to the next several weeks!