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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Teaching the importance of independent problem solving

A few days ago, I wrote about my starting point for teaching professionalism, which is to cover the definition of "profession."  Having decided to teach some aspect of professionalism in my courses, the next issue was what to cover and how to do it without being preachy or coming off as Rita Delvecchio-esque, "I'm keeping this ball now!  Have your mother come get it!"

As these Prawfs posts by Robin Effron, Kerri Stone, and Bill Araiza show, there is a lot to cover.  I decided to focus on the one aspect of professional behavior that I looked for most in the attorneys (and other officers) that worked for me.  That aspect?

Independent problem solving.  The definition of "profession" includes "applying abstract knowledge to solve problems."  I would add independently to that phrase.  Bosses want to give tasks to their subordinates and then move on to something else.  Bosses don't want for subordinates to keep coming back to them asking them how to do the task.  Subordinates who take the task, work it, and return a good product are promoted.  Subordinates who keep coming back for guidance are marginalized.

We see this problem with students who ask for additional instructions on how to complete a task, when the instructions are at the top of the page, or in the syllabus, or you have already gone over them in class.  

In defense of Millennials, I don't think this is a Millennial problem.  The pieces that I have my students read are from 1895, 1899, and 1974.  Those authors were either complaining about the lack of this ability or showcasing the value of it, and the generations they were talking about didn't have helicopter parents or get trophies just for showing up.  I think it is a rare trait in whatever generation is in the modern curmudgeon's cross-hairs.

About a third of the way through the semester, I have my students read Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard (three pages long).  The basic story is that President McKinley needed to get a letter to Garcia, who was a rebel leader holed up in the mountains in Southeastern Cuba, not far from where GTMO is now.  Lieutenant Rowan got the letter, didn't ask any question, and accomplished the task. 

There is a great line in this story (forgive the pronouns -- this is from 1899): "Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals.  Anything he asks will be granted; his kind is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go."  I think that statement (in gender-neutral terms) is still true.  The students and I then discuss the best ways to find out the information they need to solve the problem (Rowan certainly asked people questions -- he just asked the right people).

I ask them to model that behavior for the rest of the semester.  Before they ask their supervising attorney (me) a question, they should see if they can Carry a Message to Garcia.  Look in the syllabus, look in the book, ask their friends, try to solve the problem, and then come to me when they are stuck.  I'm always available, but do that first. 

Another third of the way through the semester, I assign a short article, Who's Got the Monkey by William Oncken and Donald Wass.  This article talks about how problems (as in, monkeys) transfer from bosses to subordinates and back.  The article teaches bosses how not to accept monkeys from their subordinates, and teaches subordinates how not to give monkeys to their bosses, but when they have to, the best way to do so.  The article talks about five levels of initiative, and the students and I talk about when to use which type of initiative.   

I end the semester with If by Rudyard Kipling (again, forgive the pronouns).  Independent problem solving involves risk.  Risk avoidance is why subordinates ask a ton of questions -- the questions put the risk back on the boss.  The first stanza is pretty much on point.

I was pretty much brain-washed with this stuff during my time in the Army so I may give this facet of professional behavior more value than it is worth.  And, this certainly isn't an attribute that is limited to the law profession, or maybe even professions in general, but I think it is an attribute that is key to success in our profession.  Any thoughts?

Posted by Eric Carpenter on March 11, 2015 at 11:34 AM in Teaching Law | Permalink


Thanks, Lauren. I haven't given much thought to this in the small-firm or solo-practice context, and I should have. I was thinking medium-firm or government practice (DA, PD primarily), where there are either a lot of individuals working on individual cases but supervised by one boss, or a group of people working on a single case supervised by one boss.

The dynamic changes when the supervising attorney is still doing a lot of hand-on practice rather than working a few high-billable hours per case to steer strategy or solve a particular problem, and certainly changes when there isn't a boss -- and you have to direct questions to other attorneys in the field.

I had in my head the idea that there would be alternatives to the boss -- people lower in the hierarchy, or others on the same level of hierarchy.

Posted by: Eric Carpenter | Mar 12, 2015 10:54:41 AM

Hi Paul: You are touching on a couple of things that I'm planning to post on. In one of my upcoming posts, I'm going to talk about teaching metacognition in the context of deep versus shallow learning. I also plan to write on Type I and Type II errors in the context of how law schools predict who will be successful on the bar exam and who will not.

I hadn't thought of this problem in Type I/Type II framework, and I think that is an interesting (and accurate) way to conceptualize it. I have a degree in military complex problem solving and until now, I hadn't recognized how much of the military problem solving process is directed toward reducing Type I errors.

I think I started with an assumption that the subordinates couldn't solve the problem and knew that they couldn't solve the problem. (So no error.) In that case, my point to the students is that they need to do other things (direct the right questions to the right people) before they re-approach their boss. If no one can solve the problem, then that is what bosses are for. Bosses are paid to solve the problems that other people can't. (The "Who's Got the Monkey" article describes this).

One of my other assumptions is that the bosses give the correct amount of guidance. That would modify your Type I/Type II to "with the proper guidance, think they can solve the problem but can't" and "with the proper guidance, think they can't solve the problem but can."

I guess Type II errors wouldn't be a problem, because they think they can't solve a problem, then they ask the right people (people below them in the hierarchy and then those lateral) questions and then realize that they always could. There is some cost associated with that, but not the same cost as that associated with pestering the boss. They key is to do it on their time and not the boss' time (I'm thinking Mr. Hand and Jeff Spicoli).

Type I errors are still a problem. The military uses a backbrief process that helps to cut down on this error. The boss gets the chance to test whether the subordinates really do get it and can solve the problem. I haven't been talking to my students about that, but should.

The assumption that bosses give the proper amount of guidance is questionable, too.

In Message to Garcia, the task parameters were pretty simple -- put this envelope in Garcia's hands. Most problem parameters aren't that simple. In the military, commanders are thoroughly trained on how to give the right kind of guidance (called Commander's Intent).

The commander frames the problem (here is the current state, there is the end state, and here is the broad idea of how we get from here to there). With that statement, if the commander is killed, the subordinates can still get the mission done.

Most bosses aren't trained like military commanders, though.

When I talk to the students, I tell them that they need to know their boss. It the boss is a micromanager, then none of this really matters. The boss is solving the problem for them anyway. Most successful bosses can't be micromanagers, though, because they can't succeed in their jobs if they are doing someone else's job. The "Who's Got the Monkey" article is also pretty good on this point.

The bigger problem is the boss that doesn't give reasonable guidance and how to tactfully approach that.

Thanks for the comments! And please poke holes in this reply.

Posted by: Eric Carpenter | Mar 12, 2015 10:07:40 AM

Further thought:

It seems to me that the real goal is teaching students the metacognitive skills to identify when they genuinely have the ability to independently solve a problem with which they're presented, and when they don't.

The problem is when they (as students or as lawyers) make either Type I errors, when they think they can solve a problem without guidance but can't, as well as Type II errors, when they think they can't solve a problem but can.

Type I errors generate the pathological behavior of producing shitty work. Type II errors generate the pathological behavior of harassing hierarchical with stupid questions.

Some causal factors lead to both errors. For example, a tendency to systematically underinvest time and effort in solving problems can lead to either producing half-baked work (type I error) or premature asking for help (type II error). Other causal factors lead to just one kind of error. For example, overconfidence leads to type I errors, while underconfidence and risk aversion lead to type II errors.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Mar 11, 2015 5:19:19 PM

Half of me says "this is great, and I should steal it directly and inflict it on my own students."

The other half of me says "but what about cognitive biases toward overconfidence! Doesn't the wise boss want some degree of compensatory bias toward asking for guidance to prevent subordinates going off half-cocked?"

How to balance these two issues?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Mar 11, 2015 4:35:00 PM

Eric, I agree wholeheartedly. After getting too many student questions prefaced with "I know it's in the syllabus, but it's easier to ask you," I adopted a professionalism policy in my syllabus this semester. I also told my students on the first day of class that, in an effort to get them ready for practice, I was going to stop answering questions that they had the wherewithal to answer themselves by consulting the syllabus.

Teaching students to be the kind of junior attorneys who get promoted is important, as you note. Encouraging this kind of independent problem solving is also critical for students who go on to open their own practices (which a fair number of our students do) and who won't have a boss to turn to for guidance.

So far, my students have been pretty receptive to the concept that this new policy is for purposes of getting them practice-ready, and not just because I'm being "mean." I like the concept of also assigning the short articles you mention and may borrow that idea in the future. Thanks for the post!

Posted by: Lauren Newell | Mar 11, 2015 1:01:29 PM

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