Monday, November 28, 2011

Defining the Problem, Inside and Outside of the Box (from The Cleveland Post, November 18, 2010)

Defining the Problem, Inside and Outside of the Box


Kathleen S. Volcjak

I love this quote from Donald Rumsfeld:

"There are known knowns. These are the things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

Learning to figure out which is which is (or should be) one of the main goals of education. I have tutored elementary and middle school students in math on and off for over fifteen years, and it is this skill that trips most of them up. Given 327 x 6, they know what to do (multiply) and what to do it to (327 and 6). No unknowns here.

But what to do when the multiplication sign is taken away and replaced with words?! Sometimes there are extra numbers, too, and the point is for the student to learn to sort through what is relevant and what is not, what is known but not relevant.

Children often provide their own examples of what is known but irrelevant. Consider this problem: "It takes Rick's mother fifteen minutes to drive from their home to his Cub Scout meeting. If his mother leaves at 5:30, what time will they arrive at the meeting?" Adults get to the point (hopefully) that they see it's the same elapsed time problem as 'If Molly puts the cookies in the oven at 5:30 and they bake for fifteen minutes, what time will it be when she takes them out?'

But not children. They make associations with words, like how Mama grumbles about the traffic after school and that time there was an accident and they sat next to Bojangles and smelled the fried chicken for a really long time. It becomes perfectly reasonable for a child capable of calculating elapsed time to say "I don't know" because, for her, the effect of traffic is a relevant known unknown.

The farther we move from being students, the more complex the problems become. We become the ones who create them and the ones responsible for developing answers. Not a comforting thought, considering the groans the mere mention of 'word problems' draws from many old enough to know better.

And so we come to the state budget. $3 billion dollars more scheduled to go out than expected to come in. Governor Bev Perdue has asked all agencies to present budgets showing 5%, 10%, and 15% cuts, and is also putting together proposals for restructuring government all together. Fine, as far as it goes.

But this is where the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns come in to play. We ought to know by now that the biggest known known in the budget is that the good times don't last. "When will they end?" and "Why did they end?" are open questions, known unknowns. But as new technology develops new markets and situations faster than we can identify potential economic hazards, "Why?" is also an unknown unknown.

It should be a no-brainer that the budget should serve all the people of the state and spend their tax dollars in a manner that honors the work and, perhaps, sacrifice that generated them in the first place.

To that end, one hopes the best resources are put to defining this budget - and that our legislators listen to them. Our state motto is "To be, rather than to seem" and our legislators should act accordingly, going for substance, not flash. They should use history and economics to flesh out the knowns and the unknowns into their various likelihoods. They should think inside and outside the box to put together a robust budget that covers the basics, anticipates bumps in the road and provides flexible responses. Then, prioritize what's left and add the high priority items.

Yeah, well.

In the mean time, encourage your children and grandchildren to get up to speed on math. If it was not your favorite subject, keep that to yourself and maybe get some help with it (studies show success in math increases with age!). It is a known known there will be more budget trouble in the future. If our children can't work out the math then, who will?

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