Could Inverse Thinking Lessen the Impact of COVID-19 on Education?

What if you could solve difficult problems by first listing ways to achieve the results you don’t want? And what if the obstacle to education posed by the COVID-19 virus is just one more example of how an “inverted” approach to problem solving can be applied to even our most perplexing problems?

The inversion method is based on the work of Carl Jacobi, the 19th-century mathematician who provided foundational contributions to our understanding of topics like elliptic functions, differential equations, number theory, and more. Jacobi maintained  that it was quite often easier to solve complex problems by flip-flopping them. For almost 200 years, his counterintuitive approach has provided pathways to solutions for problems others deemed “unsolvable.”

“How can we maintain educational momentum in the midst of the challenges forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic?” That is a question heavy on the minds of educators, school administrators, and everyone concerned with our educational systems. Can Jacobi’s inversion approach provide fresh insight? While the process could seem outlandish, maybe even harsh, the perspective it offers may prove invaluable.

There Are Times When the Best Way Is Another Way

The Stukent idea is an example of how inversion thinking can work. Stuart Draper wanted to learn how to earn money by working online. He took the same enthusiasm, motivation, and dedication he’d applied to becoming a state champion wrestler in high school and used it to pursue an internet marketing education in college. Stu soon found, though, that his new ambition couldn’t be achieved with a head-on assault.

There was one “unsolvable” problem he couldn’t overcome: Because digital marketing methods and tools are quickly and constantly changing, the textbooks in Stuart’s classes were largely obsolete by the time he bought them. Moreover, keeping up with the ever-changing world of marketing on the internet placed a major burden on college professors. 

If you tried to devise a way to hamstring your efforts to teach digital marketing on a college campus, you would’ve recommended using out-of-date textbooks, defunct tools, and made sure the teachers would NOT be able to keep up with the pace of the topics they were asked to teach. THAT, as it turns out, is the essence of inversion. The system in place worked quite well in pre-internet days, but proved woefully inadequate over time.

Stuart envisioned a better way. He reasoned that digital marketing would best be taught by digital means and that students should be given real-world business simulation tools that would allow them to gain virtual experience doing the very same work they were preparing to do professionally. 

Inversion Thinking and the COVID-19 Impact on Education

So how can the inversion method help school teachers, professors, and administrators sort through the upheaval created by the COVID-19 pandemic? To stretch the concept even further, how can parents and students partner with their schools to not just deal with the coronavirus situation, but even to jiu-jitsu it into a blessing rather than a curse? Is that even possible?

Let’s view the current obstacles through inverted lenses. We can do that by asking, “How could we do the worst possible job of dealing with the COVID-19 threat to high schools and colleges?”

Here’s a top-of-the-mind list of five easy ways we could defeat ourselves:

  1. Shut down schools altogether
  2. Use the crisis as an excuse to fail
  3. Sink our budget into trying to shore up the old way
  4. Complain about our troubles loudly and get everyone else to do the same
  5. Make sure educators sit on the sidelines and aren’t able to provide input to administrative decision makers

That’s a difficult list to make. It wreaks of defeat and negativity, yet adding another five or more suggestions wouldn’t be too difficult. 

So, how does Jacobi’s inversion principle provide value — since it’s more than obvious that we don’t want to pursue any of those directions? 

Here’s how: Inversion-based problem solving encourages us to note the path to failure, then do the opposite. Until we’ve recognized the things we KNOW aren’t the path, it’s temptingly easy to revert them anyway. Have you participated in a meeting recently where complaints were rampant and budget issues were more directed at maintaining last year’s status quo than facing this year’s reality? Most of us have … some of us see it repeatedly.

Adversity Can Give Birth to Better Ideas and More Effective Results

The Stukent mission is to “help educators help students help the world,” and we’re serious about that statement. It informs every decision we make. It wasn’t an idea that just popped into Stuart Draper’s head one day, though. Our mission was the obvious response to a problem begging for a solution. Stu saw that digital marketing instruction needed an upgrade. Technology can move quicker than institutions.

Our response flipped the five above-listed ways NOT to move forward  (we inverted the inversion) and gave legs to our mission:

  1. Open high school and college campuses to a new way of classroom teaching. Prior to Stukent, the books were outdated and instructors were swamped. By bringing the internet to the classroom, we were able to provide the most current information and reduce both the costs and the headaches. 

    How that can apply today: The challenge now is to take the classroom to the student. Technology is perfectly capable of doing that, if we’ll let it.
  1. Use the crisis as a way to get stronger and better. When you’re standing at the foot of a mountain and looking up at the peak, the climb often seems impossible. Once you’ve begun, though, and you’ve hiked a few hours … your progress becomes evident. Later, once you reach the top and look back on where you’ve come from, it’s easy to be exuberant and to be thankful you put in the effort. 

    How that can apply today: We can do the same with COVID 19. We can turn the fear and pain into courage and healing.
  1. Invest in the future: Rather than try to figure out ways to get books printed quicker or create special equipment teachers can use to locate resources on their own, the Stukent approach was to make it really, really simple by doing all the heavy lifting. Our simulation modules and digital textbooks are turn-key approaches that come alongside instructors to give them ready access to world-class educational resources. Stukent invested in the future, not in the past.

    How that can apply today: A right approach to coronavirus won’t set education back, it will push education forward. Many of the old models were worn out anyway. Rather than try to resurrect them, let’s move our money and efforts into creating new models. Call it “out of the box thinking,” if you will. Really, though, it’s called “facing reality.” It’s better to enter the new door with excitement and anticipation than to languish woefully at the door now closing behind us.
  1. Stop complaining and focus on collaboration. Stuart could’ve made it his ambition to write articles about the sad state of digital marketing education. He could’ve created social media groups aimed at gathering followers who agreed with him. He could even have started his own school and made it his ambition to woo students away from colleges to enroll in Stukent University. Rather than pick up the role of “chief complainer,” though, Stu picked up his notepad and went to work. He looked for ways to collaborate with colleges, not for ways to dismantle them. 

    How that can apply today: Students, parents, teachers, professors, administrators, and every stakeholder in our schools, face a common enemy: the effects of coronavirus on our ability to conduct educational activities. By encouraging one another, being open to change, and looking for ways to facilitate instruction (whether online or off), we can get back on the same team. And that’s where we should have been all along.
  1. Empower teachers and professors to take fresh paths in their classes. Stuart knew any truly successful approach to a major change in classroom instruction would very likely be met with resistance from teachers. Rather than try to tell them how to do their job better, he enlisted professors (beginning with Professor Kent Lundin at BYU) to advise him on what THEY needed. That approach helped lower barriers of resistance to change and invited the frontline leaders in education to become partners in change management.

    How that can apply today: There is no one-size-fits-all technique for passing knowledge on from instructor to student. Subjects differ, content differs, personalities and learning styles differ. Digital courseware and simulations can give overloaded teachers the tools they need to create hyper-learning environments, but it’s critical that the instructors are easily able to advise the creators of those tools.

Can these inverse ideas work? Stukent gets unsolicited comments and sees gratifying results like these ALL the time:

  • The sophistication and technologies of simulations make the content seem more real-to-life. The reasons for succeeding in class become more obvious and tangible to students. They feel better prepared when they get their first job.
  • Online access means a much greater choice of modes and materials. Rather than having to dig for more resources, instructors have abundant easy-to-obtain choices.
  • Classroom engagement goes through the roof. Students ask more questions, challenge one another to learn, and look forward to class. They leave more reviews and better reviews for the class and the teacher.
  • Digital courseware makes classroom management easier. Grading becomes a breeze. Every instruction you need for implementing the tools is readily available online.
  • Classroom time is customizable, making it possible for students to proceed at their own pace and select their own focus areas. 
  • Competence is proven through applied learning. Students are proud to receive their certificates of completion after a learning track, and their work looks great on a resume.

Here an example of how one student shared her Stukent certification:

Could Inversion Thinking Help Your School Cope With COVID-19?

The inversion method can apply to any problem and any discipline. Multi-billionaire investor Charlie Munger (Warren Buffet’s partner) is an advocate of inversion thinking– which could be a big part of why Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, says Munger is “Truly the broadest thinker I have ever encountered.” 

“Invert, always invert,” wrote Munger in his book, Poor Charlie’s Almanack. “[Jacobi] knew that it is in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backwards … We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.”

For ways to deal with the physical aspects of COVID-19, school administrators turn to industrial hygienists. The FACS blog has written extensively on topics like social distancing at school, ventilation systems and coronavirus, how to disinfect surfaces effectively, and such. Those science-based deliberations and decisions are essential.

Above it all, though, are mindset and strategic planning. That’s where Jacobi’s inverse thinking principle can really shine. What would happen at your next staff meeting if participants were encouraged to try a round of inversion thinking? At the least, it could break the ice and dispel fears by getting them out in the open. At best, it could free your team up to avoid the obvious (but often unannounced) traps on the pathway to this brave new world … and that’s a direction worth aiming for.

Stukent’s reason for being is to help educators help students help the world, and we’re always looking for ways to do that better. If you have feedback on our existing simulations, ideas for new simulations, or just want to talk about digital possibilities for your school or classroom, you can contact us via any of the following methods:

Phone: (855) 788-5368

Email: [email protected]

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