The third chapter of The Art of Problem Posing begins with an anecdote of a speaker relating the following observation to a group of math teachers:
There are nine Supreme Court Justices. Each year, in an act of cordiality the Supreme Court session begins with each judge shaking hands with every other judge. (p. 19)He then asks what the question was for this setup.
What would you ask?
If you're like me you asked the, "How many handshakes..." question. The book states that the question was so obvious the speaker treated it as rhetorical, stated the question himself, and moved on with his talk. The authors then drop kick me in the head with this:
Many of us are blinded to alternative questions we might ask about any phenomenon because we impose a context on the situation, a context that frequently limits the direction of our thinking. We are influenced by our own experiences and frequently are guided by specific goals (e.g., to teach something about permutations and combinations), even if we may not be aware of having such goals.
The ability to shift context and to challenge what we have taken for granted is as valuable a human experience as creating a context in the first place. (emphasis added because it's so awesome)
I had a strong reaction to reading Ashli's experience working with Dan Meyer's Boat in the River problem. When I sat in to watch Dan present this video (IIRC, there were about 20 of us and presumably, most of us were teachers), the "right"question was asked by nearly all of us. I recall being shocked that Ashli's students were so all over the place and only one group got the "right" question. In her shoes, I can imagine myself being mildly irritated at what appears to be kids shouting out random questions in attempts to be, ummm, kids.
Look at this question - "Why does he put the headphones in?"
I would definitely get this question. I would get it from the kid who is always trying to not-so-smoothly listen to his ipod by resting his head on his hand and running an earbud through his sleeve. He'd probably follow up the question with a statement about how Dan's ipod is old and the newer gen is much better. I'd be dismissive and move on.
Except.... I'm the one at fault here. It's actually quite interesting why he needs headphones and is certainly worth investigation. Discovering that Dan needs to maintain a constant speed only enriches the problem that I had intended for us to investigate originally. If you want to get crazy, the followup question, "What if he didn't maintain a constant speed?" opens up a whole new, and perhaps more interesting, investigation.
My tunnel vision is only exacerbated when I've taken the time to develop and create the problem myself. It's fairly easy for me to divorce myself from a lab I found on google. On the other hand, when I've taken hours to create a lab or demo in order to launch a specific investigation, I find myself invested in the idea that this demo so wonderfully elicits the question I'm hoping my students will ask so I can teach the thing I wanted to teach.
Stepping back and allowing the process of problem solving and problem posing to grow organically is something I struggle with daily.
It hurts my brain to think about how often I've limited questions because I've imposed my own context.