1 When to conduct a detailed problem definition

The Problem Definition Tool works both to open a problem up and to help define the wider context and associated issues involved. It examines the evidence and the assumptions underlying the problem. Such a detailed examination can sometimes lead to the problem being completely reframed.

At the very least, the tool will lead to a more rigorous and critical definition, captured in a statement that is both explicit and succinct. A problem definition set out in one well-formulated sentence is very valuable: something that addresses the central elements of the issue.

Cartoon of Einstein standing in front of a black board with a question mark written on it with speech bubble “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions!”
Figure 1: Einstein is said to have understood the importance of defining a problem.

Activity 1

Timing: Allow around 20 minutes for this activity

As the cartoon in Figure 1 above shows, Einstein is reported to have said, ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.’

  • a.How do you feel about this quote?
  • b.Can you think of an example when this approach would have saved you time and resources?

Make some notes in answer to these questions in the text box below.

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The quote is a powerful one. I can think of several instances in my work when I thought I understood the problem but soon ran into difficulties when trying to solve it. This was because I was addressing the symptoms rather than the underlying cause. For example, I might repeatedly correct a student’s inaccurate referencing in an assignment, when actually the cause is that the student doesn’t understand why, when and how to reference. I was only addressing the symptoms. So, the problem is not that they need support in polishing their referencing, but that they need to understand why, when and how to reference. This requires a very different response from me to support the student.

2 Steps in problem definition