Debate Magazine

The Problem is the Problem (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

Here’s a great story I read on Aza Raskin’s blog:

It’s 1959, a British industry magnate by the name of Henry Kremer [asked] a haunting question: Can an airplane fly powered only by the pilot’s body power? Like Da Vinci, Kremer believed it was possible and decided to push his dream into reality. He offered the staggering sum of £50,000 for the first person to build a plane that could fly a figure eight around two markers one half-mile apart. Further, he offered £100,000 for the first person to fly across the channel. In modern US dollars, that’s the equivalent of $1.3 million and $2.5 million.

A decade went by. Dozens of teams tried and failed to build an airplane that could meet the requirements. It looked impossible. Another decade threatened to go by before [a man named Paul] MacCready, decided to get involved. He looked at the problem, how the existing solutions failed, and how people iterated their airplanes. He came to the startling realization that people were solving the wrong problem. “The problem is,” he said, “that we don’t understand the problem.”

MacCready’s insight was that everyone working on solving human-powered flight would spend upwards of a year building an airplane on conjecture and theory without the grounding of empirical tests. Triumphantly, they’d complete their plane and wheel it out for a test flight. Minutes later, a years worth of work would smash into the ground. Even in successful flights, a couple hundred meters latter the flight would end with the pilot physically exhausted. With that single new data point, the team would work for another year to rebuild, retest, re-learn. Progress was slow for obvious reasons, but that was to be expected in pursuit of such a difficult vision. That’s just how it was.

The problem was the problem. Paul realized that what we needed to be solved was not, in fact, human powered flight. That was a red herring. The problem was the process itself, and along with it the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months. And he did. He built a plane with Mylar, aluminum tubing, and wire.

The first airplane didn’t work. It was too flimsy. But, because the problem he set out to solve was creating a plane he could fix in hours, he was able to quickly iterate. Sometimes he would fly three or four different planes in a single day. The rebuild, retest, re-learn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.

18 years had passed since Henry Kremer opened his wallet for his vision. Nobody could turn that vision into an airplane. Paul MacCready got involved and changed the understanding of the problem to be solved. Half a year later later, MacCready’s Gossamer Condor flew 2,172 meters to win the prize. A bit over a year after that, the Gossamer Albatross flew across the channel.

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I love this story. There is a wisdom here that can illuminate issues we confront in transforming our schools. The prevailing question right now is, “How can we make bored, disinterested, disaffected, students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds do better on standardized tests?”

The problem, of course, is that we don’t understand the problem.

What if, like Paul MacCready, we reframed the question: “How can we help students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds feel interested, engaged, and empowered when they’re at school?”

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