The Importance of Being Thorough

The more detail you apply to defining an issue, the better the chance of solving it. 
Roy Gilbert
Apr 7, 2023
Learning techniques
Learning progress lies in pursuing detail and thoroughness when defining a problem.

Educators are familiar with teaching problem-solving in their discipline.  Mathematics students learn how to solve mathematical problems; similar with physics, chemistry, biology. There are, however, many problems that are not discipline specific, particularly when you eventually enter the workforce.  These require 'insightful questioning': the 'Q' in the Reg Revans Learning Equation”.  

How does one develop insightful thinking? Reg told me that at the Cavendish Laboratory it came from eminent scientists helping each other tackle real problems outside their area of expertise. Given there were several present or future Nobel scientists, one would expect the “Q” to come easily.  When you don’t operate in such a high intellectual environment, you need some concrete principles that can be taught. Over the years I developed some that helped me.

To be a competent problem-solver, you must first thoroughly define the problem. Do not jump too quickly to what you think may be THE ANSWER and so miss other options. The more detail you apply to defining a problem or issue, the better the chance of solving it. One or more of the following 14 factors can help identifying and solving problems.

1 People (yourself, peers, schoolmates, teachers, family, social groups).
2 Systems (personal, social, economic, scientific, teaching methodology).
3 Rules (legislation, regulations, laws; mathematical, scientific, grammar).
4 Data (source, thoroughness, relevance, accuracy, reliability, validity).
5 Materials (iron, wood, coal, gas, plastic etc.).
6 Technology/infrastructure (machinery, inventions, books, computers).
7 Organizations (school structure, classroom layout, curriculum design, school timetable).
8 Natural elements (organic, physical, chemical, biological, weather, climate).
9 Other living species (animals, plants, insects).
10 Timing (appropriate action at appropriate time).
11 Culture (religious beliefs/practices, and social environment).
12 History (past influences).
13 Geography (location).
14 Finance (cost of materials, cost of solutions).

When analysing the 14 factors, keep in mind Rudyard Kipling’s trusted advisors.

'I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew);

their names are What and Why and When and How

and Where and Who'.

Student Awareness
To improve your performance at school, start with the ‘People’ factor. Before blaming someone else, you could be the fundamental problem by not putting in sufficient effort; easily distracted in class; not dedicated to study; not recognising when postponed gratification can prove a preferable option to instant reward. (Think hard about that one).

Other ‘people’ factors include your family. They may not be offering you sufficient support. You may be too embarrassed to ask classmates for help. The culture of your out-of-school social group may be anti-study and convince you to be equally negligent. It requires no mental strength to surrender to group pressure. ‘Followers’ are good at this.

‘Technology’. You may be too obsessed with social media. Spending too much time on frivolous activities on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok. Overuse can make you intellectually lazy/barren depriving you of developing important mental skills. Technology can make you too acceptance of data - not scrutinising thoroughly, not checking the authenticity for assignments.

‘Systems’ - Included would be teaching methodology, teacher-directed and student-directed. Rote learning could be preferable for numeracy/literacy/scientific laws. 

Educational Administration
Attention to detail is important in administration. At an introductory World Bank workshop for 15 senior managers of a National Education Department in a developing country, one topic was how to improve “numeracy & literacy”. Unbeknown to the administrators the aim was to show how planners (such as them) often made the mistake of jumping straight from a broad definition of a problem to a solution - to the one all-embracing “fix everything” strategy expected to cure all ills, yet rarely did. The group was asked to nominate what they thought was the solution.

Each gave ‘the’ answer. The first said it was due to the low pay of teachers. The second disagreed and said it was due to overcrowded classrooms. Another identified the British curriculum as not culturally relevant. Finally, someone shouted “attendance”.

Obviously, all the factors could contribute, but it was unlikely any alone would be entirely responsible. Take “attendance”. This prompted a simple question to the group – “what was the problem?” Everyone was surprised being asked this. “The children don’t attend classes”, shouted an official.

If questioning is abandoned early into the problem-solving process, there is little chance of gaining precious insight. You need to be thorough.

“Who don’t attend?” - I asked.

“Children in rural areas” came a quick answer.

“Why don’t they attend?”

“Because they help their parents transport produce on market days.”

So, it was actually several factors; historical, geographical and cultural.

“When is market day?” was the next question.


Question followed by answer, eliciting further questions and answers - an inductive thoroughness process repeated until a meaningful strategy emerges. Socrates is credited with designing the methodology.

So, what could be done? They could arrange a meeting involving the students and their parents to establish a simple and practical exercise for Fridays at the markets. Set some problems to solve with their parents, relevant to the market days - arithmetic problems; sums related to pricing, weights and volume. Illustrate to the parents and students the practical value of education. Sometimes insightful questions can induce common-sense.

With a little imagination, a simple similar divergent strategy could be pilot tested for helping disadvantaged aboriginal students in remote regions in Australia. Given it is suggested in some families (particularly some fathers) seem to have little interest in the education of their children, perhaps a more integrated approach to education could be tested whereby the teaching is done with students and parents (particularly the fathers) sitting together in a room at the same time. It might be resource intensive, but if that is what is required, the money would be well spent. Make the lessons practical. Relate maths to manual and trade activities which could interest the fathers. Maybe use trade/TAFE teachers in some capacity - even local tradesmen and tradeswomen, retired military veterans, and retirees. Unless the students learn basic numeracy and literacy there will be very limited prospect of useful employment and a more prosperous life. 

The school could have material designed for individuals to work at their own pace, rather than at a combined classroom pace, progressing to higher tasks when they have mastered the lower tasks. Perhaps something similar could be done in Australia - integrated parent/child learning with individualised instruction and individualised progression for disadvantaged aboriginal students.

Managing a School
Below is an ‘Accomplishment Document’ document prepared for a National Department of Education on a World Bank assignment. If performance on any of the desired ‘outcomes’ is below expectations, check to see if any of the 14 factors could be the reason(s). The factors promote ‘insightful’ analysis.

School Mission
‘To provide students with the fundamental knowledge, skills and abilities considered necessary for a quality life in a constantly changing and increasingly competitive world’.

1 Desired Student (client) Outcomes
Students acquire -

1 Basic numeracy/literacy and knowledge of the fundamental language, laws & principles of their chosen discipline/areas of study - for ensuring positive performance in one’s chosen occupation.
2 Ability for analysis, problem solving and evaluation - to assist in employment and with quality of life.
3 Awareness of principles/techniques for innovation and enterprise - to enable survival in a changing world.
4 Respect for the intellectual, social and physical abilities of others, and not to be arrogant towards, or jealous of, differences - to improve social cohesion.
5 An understanding of the requirements of a responsible citizen with respect to relationships with others, the law and the environment - to reduce unlawful behaviour.

B. All students are assisted to reach their maximum potential.

2 Desired Operational Outcomes
The assessments MUST NOT be an elaborate administrative nightmare. Simple discussions among teachers at an end-of-term staff meeting will suffice.
1 Students are provided with adequate equipment/material/references to cover the demands of their courses.
2 Material is delivered in a manner conducive to learning (share ideas).
3 Timetable allows students to pursue their choice of subjects.
4 Poor student performance is identified, and corrective action taken.
5 Top academic students are given challenging work compatible with ability.
6 Relationship between students & staff enhances the learning process.
7 Absence of student behavioural problems – discipline, drugs, bullying.
8 Student attendance is maximized.
9 Teachers maintain proper (personal) relationships with students.
10 Staff have appropriate background/qualifications for their teaching program.
11 Responsibilities regarding teaching and marking/student evaluations, are met.
12 Teachers adapt to new challenges (curriculum, organizational).
13 Buildings & facilities enhance the learning process.
14 Administration facilitates the teaching/learning process.
15 Staff vacancies are filled in accordance with established timetable.
16 Positive industrial relations maintained.
17 OH&S standards are met.
18 School playground is adequately monitored.
19 Materials are safely stored.
20 Staff workload is fairly distributed.

A list of the student and operational outcomes will stimulate critical thinking and lead to the realization there may be a variety of strategies & tasks for each of the outcomes listed above. Ask if any one factor - or several - may be a cause (or partial cause), and if correcting them could help solve the problem.