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Backwards Engineering
When the Solution dictates the Problem

The path that runs from a complex problem to its possible solutions could be likened (at the risk of oversimplifying) to a tree structure where movement flows from the most fundamental problem out towards a series of smaller related problems and from each of these to a number of potential solutions. Satisfactory decision-making in complex situations often requires keeping a number of possibilities open and adopting several solutions. Whatever the choice, pursuing one or more smaller, related problems and there possible solutions results in a large number of other problems and potential solutions ceasing to be considered. Particular difficulties arise when the solution takes on a life of its own in such a way that it begins to dictate the perception of the problem rather it being an answer to the problem. From this perspective, no other solution is possible because the solution is both the starting point and the goal. Taken to its extreme, the solution is created with only a tenuous link to a particular problem and then its creators seek to suggest how it might be used to solve any number of problems. This is often the case with technological developments. But what if the problem to which our solution corresponds is not the pertinent problem in our situation and we need to retrace our steps back towards the underlying problem and find other paths to other solutions? If this sounds abstract and complicated, maybe an example wil help understand.

Martina's problem

A group of colleagues working in educational policy-making have come together to help each other find solutions to policy problems related to the use of ICT in education. One of the members of the group, Martina, volunteers to take the plunge and describe a problem that she currently needs to solve. After due thought, she e-mails the rest of the group that the problem that besets her organisation is the need to encourage teachers to use modular software that includes not just course material but also suggestions for suitable ways of assessing results. They currently use a simple database system to note down and share ideas about assessment related to online learning resources, but it is rather clumsy and not compatible with international standards. Martina has been involved in work on international educational standards as well as innovative forms of assessment for a number of years and is conversant with the latest technical solutions for online educational resources. She argues that the use of modular software incorporating ideas for assessment alongside learning resources will be a far more efficient solution. When the group meet face-to-face for a daylong seminar, they begin by listening to her explanation of her problem and its context. Jerry, one of the participants who specialises in curriculum development, asks her why teachers require the additional information about assessment methods. It transpires that she judges that teachers are employing old-fashioned methods that are not appropriate to the use of ICT. Another group member, Mary, who works on in-service teacher development, raises the question of teacher training: surely that has a role to play in helping teachers develop new assessment methods. Martina has to agree, but she points out that it is not relevant to the problem they have with educational resources and assessment methods. But what if her colleagues are right? What if the problem lies with teachers, their attitudes and their working conditions? Or what if it lies in the rigidity and biases of the overarching assessment schemes in schools? If either of those are the case, the technological fix may well not solve the problem.

But what if the problem is elsewhere?

Martina is convinced that the problem she is confronted with begins and ends in providing suitable assessment means in conjunction with related online resources. The problem she has chosen to submit to the group, understandably you might say, coincides with her interest and knowledge about leading-edge software and new forms of assessment. The solution to her problem appears self-evident to her. Even in her e-mail about the problem to her colleagues prior to their meeting, she already pointed to what she thought was a probable solution. During their seminar she brushes aside suggestions from her colleagues that other issues might be pertinent. But what if there really is a deeper problem that remains unanswered? Judging from what she says to her colleagues about the out-dated assessment methods of teachers, the problem does not lie only in the difficulties of providing such modular resources. That is only part of a possible solution to a deeper problem: the difficulties her teachers have with developing new forms of assessment that fit new pedagogical methods related to ICT use. This in turn may be due to a number of factors like the rigidity of the overall assessment system or the inappropriateness of available course for teacher development. It would seem that she takes what she sees to be the solution for the problem. As a result, she cuts herself off from seeing other solutions that may be more appropriate to the deeper problem that she is no longer prepared or able to consider.

The backwards engineer

The “backwards enginerring” approach to problem solving is rarely adopted deliberately. Martina is not maliciously seeking to mislead her colleagues. Such an attitude often goes unnoticed by those adopting it. Their apparent refusal to retrace their steps and challenge the assumptions and choices they and others have made along the way can have various origins. It may be, as is probably the case with Martina, due to the wish to capitalise on personal experience and knowledge or to be reassured by familiar ground. One of the merits of peer-exchange is that it enables synergies between differing expert perspectives and counteracts the potential bias of one expert perspective over all others. Another reason for such an attitude may be the will to increase or ensure personal influence by shifting discussion into one's own field of expertise. To be able to broach such a sensitive subject, any form of peer learning requires a supporting and trusting relationship between participants. A further justification for such an attitude may be the “pressure” of work and the professed lack of time that pleads against “wasting” time by reconsidering what seems self-evident. Urgency is often put forward as an excuse for hasty, if not sloppy decisions. There are even those who make a point of systematically preferring action over reflection. There are no doubt many further explanations, but it may simply be that the prevalence of “backwards engineering” in problem solving is due to its ease of use and its own self-justifying dynamic which outweigh the inappropriateness of the solutions developed. A bit like children who find their path more easily through a labyrinth on paper by tracing their way back from the goal to the starting point, working backwards from a solution that appeals to us is enticing.

Whatever the reasons that justify the “Backwards engineer” in his or her approach to problem solving, the result of what amounts to identifying the problem to fit the solution when a deeper problem persists and remains unanswered, can lead to a great waste of time and money, not to mention a serious loss of motivation and good will of many of those involved, if not considerable damage.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: August 29th, 2007 - Last up-dated: August 31st, 2007