I was reflecting on the benefits of travel, and recalled a ‘learning’ experience I underwent involuntarily more than 20 years ago. I’d gone to Moscow to speak at a conference, and determined to venture on my own to the Kremlin for a scheduled tour of the museum. I had an underground map, and headed off to the station nearest me. The route apparently had a change of train required. The ticket seller wasn’t very friendly, but I managed to somehow meet the necessary requirement to head down underground.
The real event started when I got off the requisite number of stops along the line. It turns out that the map I had wasn’t in Cyrillic characters that the underground was labeled in, and apparently I hadn’t correctly identified the station I started from. (There was no Cyrillic – Latin mapping; it wasn’t a good guidebook.) So there I was, at some random point under Moscow, without any idea about what station I was at. Worse, no one seemed (willing) to speak English.
Somewhat concerned, I started looking for clues. This was a transfer station, in that there were two different lines coming together. I went back and forth between the two lines, looking for further clues that I could use to determine where I was. Eventually I noticed that one line had a split at the end, and there was only one on the map, so I now knew one of the two lines. I recall that I counted the number of stops to determine which station I was at, and then I was good to go, and I found my way to the station nearest the Kremlin, on my map. My adventures weren’t over, however.
From there, I surfaced, and looked for which direction to head. It was totally overcast, so there were no shadows to tell direction. And I couldn’t see any of the landmark structures from where I’d emerged. I had no idea where to go! Was I going to have to abandon my quest and quit?
Again, I got systematic: I decided to walk in each direction as far as I could and still know where the station was. It was the second path that let me finally see a landmark (St. Basil’s? I no longer remember) and I found my way. I saw the museum and met my colleagues for a safe journey back to the hotel.
This remains the most overt conscious problem-solving I ever recall (followed by the time I locked myself in a building right before the grad school entrance exam, and had just a short period of time to escape without setting off the fire alarms). It took effortful thinking, systematicity, and persistence.
It’s not often these situations occur, but it’s illuminating to explore the requirements, and think about the thinking skills required. These are perhaps the most valuable investment an organization can make, getting concrete about learning and problem-s0lving, instead of expecting them. Given the way our school curriculum has been structured, they’re not likely to come from formal education. So think about how folks will have to increasingly face more complicated situations, and the skills they might require. Are you and your people ready?