The Harbour School

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The XY problem

  • STEAM
Wouter Van Marle, The Foundry Manager

Part of the process of making and creating involves solving problems. Lots of problems, big and small. Small problems like how to attach two small pieces of wood together in order to achieve a certain design outcome, or larger problems like how to make sure a car’s airbag safely deploys only when needed.

The design making process is simultaneously exciting and challenging when making something new, but inevitably one will run into problems when testing out ideas to solve problems. The problems we encounter at the Foundry are usually not of the caliber of, “How do I get this in orbit around the earth”, but more like “how do I attach A to B” or “how do I make sure this thing floats on water”. 

Makers tend to know a lot of solutions to different problems, but even the smartest maker does not know everything. Asking for help from other makers is very common in the makerspace community all round the world. There are many forums on the Internet dedicated to specific topics where anyone can post questions and get answers, usually for free.

However, while asking questions may seem easy, it is in fact a learned skill. Asking for help is particularly common for beginner makers. Recently, our Grade Five students were trying to cobble together a floating platform for their sensor buoy. Naturally, they ask questions on how to do things, or ask for materials and supplies. This is the point where we often run into a situation called the XY problem: the maker asks for help on the presumed solution (Y) to their problem (X), where the solution may be totally unsuitable. Instead, the question should be about how to solve the actual problem X at hand.

What do I mean? For example: Alice and Bob are on vacation, and Alice realises she forgot to bring her toothbrush. That evening in the restaurant she asks the waiter for a nearby convenience store. The waiter answers that there are none around, and walks away. When Bob asks Alice why she is looking for a convenience store (Alice’s solution Y), Alice answers that she figures it’s a good place to buy a toothbrush. Had she instead asked the waiter for help on her actual problem, i.e. where to buy a toothbrush (Alice’s problem X), he may have pointed out a nearby pharmacy or supermarket instead, allowing Alice to buy the toothbrush she is looking for.

Another example: a student comes to me asking for a piece of string. Without querying further, and hence in the process prove even teachers are not infallible, I give him a piece of string that I happen to have at hand. A little later, it turns out that this thin cotton string was used to tie a bottle to a piece of wood, to build the buoy which is to be deployed in the ocean later. In this case, while the proposed solution worked to an extent, it did not take into account the robustness needed. I should have asked what the string was for, and given the student a cable tie instead. 

However, imperfection or mistakes create precious teaching moments where we are as a class, able to reflect on and discuss how a more robust tethering solution can be achieved. 

It is at times hard to detect when this situation could arise. The solution proposed sounds totally sensible and there does not appear to be an underlying problem, like the student asking for string, or Alice asking about a nearby convenience store. To complicate matters, in many cases if the student seeking help is probed on “Why, what and how”, he may feel like he is not being taken seriously as independence is also encouraged in problem-solving. Quite naturally, in the string example, the student had naturally approached the problem based on solutions he is most comfortable and familiar with. 

When working with students in the Foundry, the XY problem arises frequently. We encourage students to come up with their own solutions to problems they encounter as problem solving is an important skill to develop. However, I’ve learned that it’s important to be vigilant, and to look out for these teaching moments and ask, “Why do you require this?” or “how do you plan to carry out this solution”, and go from there. This encourages students to only reach for ideas that are familiar to them but with further probing from me, allow them to reach for more suitable solutions.

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