You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Do you know a common reason for failure? Tackling the wrong problem.

Often, what we think of as a primary problem is merely a symptom of a larger problem, a past problem that has been superseded by a newer challenge or, worse yet, the result of blind spots in our thinking—the failure to see a bigger problem—that are right before our eyes.

There are several reasons why we tend to fixate on the wrong problems—cognitive biases, environmental and contextual factors, information-processing errors, groupthink and oversimplification, among other factors.

The most obvious reason is misdiagnosis: that’s the penchant for drawing incorrect conclusions about a problem’s cause. An incorrect diagnosis inevitably leads to an incorrect response.

Then there’s confirmation bias: the tendency to look for information that confirms our perceptions and ignore information that doesn’t.

Inadequate or inaccurate information can also contribute to a misdirected focus.

Yet another explanation lies in what psychologists call framing effects; how information is presented can influence how a problem is understood and significantly affect the proposed solutions.

Cognitive overload is yet another contributor to errors in judgment. When we are overwhelmed with information or complexity, we often choose to solve a simpler problem that is most easily understood.

To this list, we might add some others.

  • Overconfidence in our understanding of a problem or challenge.
  • Anchoring bias—the tendency to rely on the first piece of information we encounter, regardless of its accuracy.
  • There’s also cognitive heuristics—the mental shortcuts we use to simplify understanding and decision-making, including the human propensity to analyze a situation or make a decision based on information that is especially vivid or familiar.
  • Another contributing factor is escalation of commitment or sunk costs—the way that prior commitments of time, money or resources lead people to persist in solving the wrong problem.
  • The psychologist Daniel Kahneman uses the term “bonded rationality” to refer to the mistaken intuitions, cognitive illusions, power dynamics, emotional investments and personal agendas that influence the way we perceive a problem.

Muddled thinking, in other words, is not simply a matter of stupidity or a lack of intelligence or even incomplete or insufficient or confounding information. It may well be innate in the ways that we, as human beings, process information. We are befuddled by our emotional commitments, group dynamics, social pressures, information and cognitive biases and inertia—the tendency to view a current problem in the same way we viewed a past problem, a bent that can prevent clear thinking in novel circumstances.

If you want to be successful, make sure you’re focusing on the right problem.

So how do we solve the “wrong problem” problem?

Seek out information that questions your assumptions. Challenge your pre-existing intuitions. Consider alternate perspectives. Reframe the problem. Do your best to remain objective and avoid letting emotions and various cognitive biases cloud your judgment.

It’s often the case that a number of books with similar themes appear simultaneously. Clumps aren’t an accident. After all, writers tend to address common challenges and draw upon ideas are already in the air. That’s the case right now in the literature on higher education.

Look closely at university press catalogs and you’ll see a wave of books calling for innovation and decrying the barriers to institutional change.

There’s Brian Rosenberg’s “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”: Resistance to Change in Higher Education, James L. Shulman’s The Synthetic University: How Higher Education Can Benefit From Shared Solutions and Save Itself, Michael D. Smith’s The Abundant University: Remaking Higher Education for a Digital World and Nicholas Dirks’s forthcoming City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University. I, too, have a book in press with a somewhat similar theme: The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

But if we are to strengthen higher ed, we need to first ask ourselves: What are the problems that need to be solved? Only then can we figure out what needs to be done and how to do it.

Is the primary problem cost? Access? Time to degree? Completion rates? Career preparedness?

Or do the principal problems lie elsewhere? Is the chief challenge inadequate advising? A lack of mentoring? The quality of teaching? Broken business models? Defective transfer pathways? An overbuilt higher ed ecosystem at a time when enrollment is falling? A failure to adequately serve the new student majority of adult learners, family caregivers, full-time workers, students with disabilities, commuting and transfer students, and international students?

All these, to varying degrees, are real problems that our colleges and universities must address. But I would submit that the most serious and pressing problems lie elsewhere. In my view, three crucial challenges stand out.

  1. Stratification. The higher education landscape is among the most hierarchical in contemporary society. Institutions not only differ radically in resources, student qualifications and the undergraduate experience that they offer, but in their perceived quality, which affects graduates’ career prospects and earning potential. To make matters worse, the students with the greatest academic and financial needs are the ones who attend the least-funded institutions.

Gross disparities in resources perpetuate inequalities in outcomes. Students at less resourced institutions have less access to advisers, academic and nonacademic support services, and research and internship opportunities. In many cases, they actually pay more for their education than those who attend more elite institutions. Also, stratification can force lower-tier institutions to specialize in more vocational and market-driven courses. In addition, lower-income commuting students generally receive a less rich and robust educational experience than do their more affluent counterparts.

  1. Misplaced priorities. Even though teaching is the university’s core purpose, teaching-centered institutions are surprisingly rare. Research, even at small liberal arts colleges, has become the coin of the realm. Meanwhile, the faculty at the institutions without research expectations—community colleges—consists largely of ill-paid adjuncts who lack the time and support needed to teach truly effectively.

It’s sad but true: the biggest beneficiaries of today’s colleges and universities are people like me, tenured faculty who are largely free to teach what we want, how we want, when we want and who have privileged access to various forms of instructional and technology support and professional development opportunities. The curriculum and course offerings, in turn, largely reflect the faculty’s interests and priorities, which may not coincide with students’ needs.

  1. Deficient learning outcomes. Are we graduating culturally literate students who are effective communicators and thoughtful about current issues? How about mathematically, scientifically and technologically adept graduates who are well prepared to pursue advanced education in those fields?

You may disagree, but I, for one, don’t think so. A general education curriculum organized around a grab bag of discipline-based introductory and survey courses does little to ensure that students receive a well-rounded education, are exposed to a wide range of disciplines or understand how various fields intersect and inform one another.

Nor do one or two courses in rhetoric and composition, even when supplemented by a single writing-intensive class, guarantee that students develop the advanced writing and communication skills that a college degree supposedly certifies. Ditto for our current math requirements, which do little to make certain that students can evaluate quantitative arguments or apply statistical methods to real-world problems.

I am especially concerned about the students’ lack of scientific literacy, which must extend beyond completing one or two introductory science courses or being exposed, in a single lab class, to the scientific method and data interpretation and hypothesis testing.

I could go on and discuss other deficiencies in students’ education: Have our graduates achieved civic or financial literacy? Have they received a genuine education in ethics? Are they familiar with a foreign languages or foreign cultures and their history? The essential point is that in the name of student choice—which actually means faculty and departmental autonomy—we have lost sight of higher education’s core purpose, which is to produce knowledgeable, mature, ethically aware adults and citizens who possess essential academic and social skills.

If, as I believe, these are the real problems that higher ed needs to solve, then we’d rethink graduate training, curriculum design, requirements, degree pathways, pedagogy and assessment strategies.

You may well say that these challenges lie beyond our ability to solve, and you might well be right. After all, barely a single institution has implemented a Columbia- or Chicago-like core curriculum since World War II. Campuses have created various honors and specialized research programs, with an intentionally designed curriculum, extensive mentorship, dedicated advising, to attract and serve top students. But these programs serve only a small fraction of the student body.

Shouldn’t a democratic society extend those kinds of experiences to a much broader range of students? I think so.

For all our talk about equity, diversity and inclusion, the fact is that we define those terms in the narrowest way imaginable. A truly equitable system of higher education would ensure that all undergraduates, not just those with the highest board scores or grades, receive an education that reflects our ideals.

Every college student should be in a learning community. Every student should undertake a mentored research experience. Every student should have access to a well-rounded liberal education. In turn, every graduate should have mastered the essential skills and knowledge that we expect of a bachelor’s degree holder.

There are other steps we can and should take:

  • Incentivize and support faculty who will create innovative courses that infuse ethics across multiple disciplines and career paths; foster integration of knowledge and skills from multiple areas of study; delve into the most recent scientific research and its implications across multiple fields; give students multiple opportunities to develop their writing, speaking and presentation skills; integrate logic, statistics and quantitative analysis with real-world applications into a wider range of fields; and permit students to apply what they’ve learned to complex problems.
  • Encourage the development and adoption of shared services in areas where many campuses currently lack internal capacity and rely on for-profit vendors; nonprofit shared services might be especially helpful in assisting underresourced campuses to implement data analytics and data-informed advising or to better support online programming. Online course sharing in difficult-to-staff areas like the less commonly taught languages might also expand access to coursework currently confined to larger and wealthier institutions.
  • Accreditors should take a more assertive role in requiring campuses to adopt best practices in such areas as advising, academic and nonacademic support, and transfer policies and hold these institutions to account, while foundations should be more strategic in targeting their resources at those institutions that serve students with the greatest academic and financial needs.

This democratic dream is not beyond our ability to fulfill. If we wish it, we have the power to make this happen.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma