The choice - problems or solutions?
There are basically two approaches an undesirable situation:
1. We can find and fix the cause of the problem. This works
the physical world and for engineering type problems.
2. We can find or create solutions. That is, we can create differences that
difference!! This is usually a more successful approach to human
and organisational problems.
Being problem focused
Focusing on problems in schools tends to be time-consuming and frustrating
because even when the causes of the problem are well understood there is
often very little that can be done about the causes.
- it is easy for 'problem-solving' to become a separate additional task
- many of the causes lie outside the school: elsewhere and in another time
- these causes are well and truly beyond our control
- 'overcoming the problem' often means creating counter-measures (extra work)
- working backwards from some ideal future to
deal with the uncertainty, complexity and messiness of today's reality
requires a lot of extra effort
Being solution focused
Focusing on solutions tends to be much faster and more productive. This does
not mean ignoring problems. Rather problems are simply seen as
- opportunities for improvement, and,
- indicators of where to focus our attention
Being focused on solutions means working from the present with all its
uncertainty, complexity and messiness by using what's available to gain some
improvement in the very near future.
Having a focus on solutions tends to help us be more systematic since we
are less likely to be reacting to isolated events. In this sense, most solutions are
not one-to-one responses. Rather they are usually general improvements to 'how we do
things around here'.
That is, solutions are usually helpful things that can be integrated into the
everyday life and work of those involved. Solutions are ongoing differences that
make a positive difference!!
Solutions are not fundamentally about preventing, stopping or containing
problems (although these things will happen with a solution focus). Solutions
are fundamentally about improving the success and well-being of all involved.
Basic principles underpinning a focus on solutions
How well do the following statements describe your school's approach to
improving what is happening?
- We focus on solutions more than problems
- We look for opportunities and possibilities to gain improvements, rather
than focusing on obstacles
- We look for resources rather than deficits
- We make use of what is available, rather than worrying about what is
- If it isn't broken, we don't fix it
- If it works, we do more of it
- If it is not working, we do something different
- We know that each case is different and we act accordingly
- We take small steps that can lead to big changes
- We use influence, rather than control
- We know that the solution is not necessarily directly related to the
- We know that no problem happens all the time: there are always the exceptions that we
- We know that improvement requires action, so we focus on actions
- We work together rather than relying on experts or assigning responsibility to individuals
- We act on the basis that the future is both created and negotiable rather
than an inevitable continuation of the past
- We look for indications of progress rather than looking for someone to
Follow this link for the Solution Focus Checklist
- could be useful as a discussion starter with
Focusing on solutions is different
And the difference is fundamentally in the everyday language we use. As Steve
de Shazer said:
"Problem talk creates problems, solution talk creates solutions!"
So just listen to the everyday conversations that are occurring in your school.
What we talk about (and how) is what really creates the school.
Solution Focus as a process (example only)
1. What has brought us here? - the concern, hope, challenge...
- What would the payoff be in resolving this matter?
2. Future perfect - when it is achieved
- What will we notice? What will be different?
3. Past successes
- When have you had success with something similar?
- What resources, skills... did you use?
4. Where are we just now? - Scaling the current situation (out
- The present - what's already working?
- When does it happen a bit already?
- How does it happen? - Do more of this!!
5. Our next small steps - things we can do to move one or two points
higher on the 0-10 scale
- What's available for the next steps? Resources, skills, know-how...
6. Do it !!!
Seligman's books on
Learned Optimism and
The Optimistic Child are a good place to start to improve your listening
Using a solution focused approach at the school level
Broken Windows is a school level
approach with a strong solution focus.
In their book,
The Solutions Focus, Jackson and McKergow outline their Simple Way to
- Solutions not problems
- Inbetween - the action is in the interaction
- Make use of what's there
- Possibilities - past, present and future
- Language - simply said
- Every case is different
Well worth a read. And a brief McKergow
interview that is worth a listen.