My sister was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Kentucky last year. Not the one that extols basketball prowess, but the one that celebrates thinking: the Kentucky Academic Hall of Fame.
Leslie’s specialty has been the Future Problem Solving Program International competition, coaching future adults to wrap their heads around global concerns. Given a narrow focus within an enormous issue, they look ahead a decade, even two or three, to explore likely problems — cause, effect, solution —we wish children never had to face. But face them, they will. And of course, “they” are us.
The Future Problem Solving program builds the skills for how to think, not what to think. I’ve been thinking about the day-to-day application and potential benefits of nurturing problem-solving acumen in the context of one’s personal future.
It seems to be an important skill for anyone who is entitled to vote — or even post on social media, for that matter. Just imagine life in 2040 and how cause-and-effect could play out if we continue on a path that might eliminate Social Security, cede authority to vigilantes with assault weapons, and undo environmental protections that ensure safe drinking water.
As you might expect, this extracurricular activity isn’t nearly as popular as basketball or marching band. Real-life problem-solving is hard work, for the students and the coach. It requires teamwork across a multitude of divides of place and culture. It usually means that the coach has to take participants home, back in the Kentucky holler. Teamwork is messy, requiring patience and perseverance with some people who make you mad enough to want to punch them in the face. Humility and the admission of error are hard lessons to learn, but essential.
Topics from the parent Future Problem Solving organization often precede public concern for the situation. The team is presented with a futuristic scenario, which they analyze to discern potential challenges that could result from the situation.
They must pinpoint the underlying problem and then work forward to imagine possible courses of action from multiple vantage points. Critical factors include where this situation is happening and when, accounting for such factors as government, socio-economics and culture. Judges score the team’s written and oral responses on an extensive grid of criteria that include creative and futuristic thinking.
Using reliable information is critical to understanding sources and rooting out bias. In 1974, when Future Problem Solving was founded, there was no internet, no Google. But Rupert Murdoch had already begun to assemble a media empire that became synonymous with sensationalism — now overrun by dozens of nefarious operators who invent outrageous stories packaged to look like truth.
By the time we get to 2040, few will know who Oprah Winfrey or Sean Hannity were, let alone Walter Cronkite or Judy Woodruff. Even the popular 140-character tweet will have given way to something else.
Will a pandemic leave us with more willingness to read extensively? Understand deeply? Act intelligently? I doubt it.
My sister’s teams — none from wealthy districts — logged numerous achievements. For five years straight she had teams advance through district, regional and state meets to compete in the international event. The experience was eye-opening, traveling to another state to view a different slice of America and engage with youth from all over the world.
The first year, she had two teams advance and place at the international competition. One school board member lamented, “If this had been basketball, they would have given you a parade.”
One former team member is now an HIV surveillance investigator for the Kentucky Department of Health, using her skills against a disease that was identified in 1959 and still has no cure. Future Problem Solving alumni take their skills with them, whether they enter a professional career or stay local to find a job and raise a family. Whether dealing with a contentious neighbor, nutritional poverty in their community or a curriculum decision confronting a school board.
And here we are in 2020. On one hand we have a candidate who insists that he alone already has every answer, exhorting us to trust and believe in spite of all we’ve seen and heard.
On the other hand, we have someone who has demonstrated effective commitment to teamwork, who brings together people with expertise to hammer out difficult solutions that look beyond today to secure lives, businesses, jobs and homes.
Now would be the time to use our future problem-solving skills.
Marcia Carle lives in Lancaster County. Having retired from a career in communications and development, she is now devoted to personal writing projects, making music and exploring diverse ideas.