Candle Problems and Adaptive Challenges: Washington Higher Ed Sustainability Conference Call for Proposals

Candle Problem One

One of my favorite Ted Talks of all time is Dan Pink’s “The Puzzle of Motivation,” where he introduces Duncker’s candle problem— a cognitive performance test where participants, presented with a candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks, and a challenge: attach the (lit) candle to the wall.  Moreover, no wax must drip on the table below.

The solution to Duncker’s candle problem is not to light the candle and melt off some of the wax (melted wax is not an adhesive in that sense).  Nor can one merely thumbtack the candle to the wall.  Instead, the solution is to break out of a cognitive bias called functional fixedness— to realize that “the box of thumbtacks” is just that– a box . . . of thumbtacks.  Candle Problem Two

A participant locked into a particular way of viewing the world (or in reading the above text) will see the box only as a delivery vehicle for the thumbtacks, and not as a separate and functional component to be used in facing the challenge.

Pink goes on to explore and unpack and develop the candle problem through the lens of what one might deem a cultural sort of functional fixedness– that money is a motivator, and that the more money you pay someone to solve complex problems, the higher levels of thinking (and results) that the employee will produce.  Pink goes on to posit a vision of a new world economy– one driven not by extrinsic motivators like money, but by intrinsic motivators like autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Candle Problem ThreeI would show this talk to students in my writing courses for a variety of reasons (not only is a Ted Talk a perfect model of academic conventions– 20 minutes is ten pages, double spaced– the length of the academic essay and the standard conference presentation, but many of them embody the uneasy genre of “the academic research essay” in surprising and innovative ways), but the main one is that I think “candle problem” is an effective metaphor for the adaptive challenges we face in the 21st century.  While we still struggle with technical problems, it’s the adaptive challenges that we really need to invest our time and effort into, and the issues of sustainability pose a host of them.

When I would ask students, “Why do you think Jen (I often referred to myself in the third person) showed you this video?” invariably this response would surface almost immediately: “You want us to think outside the box.”  When I would press them a bit (“what in that video made you reply ‘thinking outside the box?'”) to get them to look more closely at the textual evidence of Pink’s talk (and move beyond easy cliche), we would spend some time discussing (of course) that oh-so-literal box in the candle problem.  As one of my students gleefully put it: “you have to USE the literal box to think OUTSIDE of the metaphorical one!”

So “candle problem” has become my sort of shorthand, now, for the kinds of thinking I think we should be encouraging in our classrooms: we are training students in ways to recognize candle problems, to overcome functional fixedness, to face adaptive challenges head-on (rather than immersing themselves in the technical problems that actually have a clear solution).  And, because as we teach, we learn, we become better at this kind of work ourselves.

Even better– we work together, with students, in the classroom, to address adaptive challenges together (but that’s another blog entry).

Sustainibility ConferenceFor now, I want to draw your attention to the Call for Proposals the first-ever Washington Higher Education Sustainability Conference Feb. 6 and 7, 2014, at Western Washington University.

The Call for Proposals is a sort of candle problem in itself, as it asks us to break out of our functional fixedness when it comes to thinking about how a session might operate.

Participative Panel Discussions are an interactive version of conventional panel presentations with 3-4 speakers and a moderator leading the group discussion. Emphasis will be on drawing connections between the panelists’ perspectives. The aim will be to both share fresh ideas and generate new knowledge amongst the participants in
the room.  Sessions will begin with short (10-15 min.) presentations from each presenter, then open discussion to the whole room. “Seeds” may be planted throughout the room to provide perspective, context and keep the discussion moving.  Panelists will be grouped together based on their unique connections rather than general topic area, i.e.
operational process, research/application, etc.

Solutions Roundtables (facilitated conversations for problem solving) provide space and facilitation for champions who are ready to dive in. Using roundtables and both small and full group discussion, these sessions will bring mixed perspectives together to tackle the bigger picture sustainability challenges facing higher education institutions. Emphasis will be on using sustainability as a lens to look at existing systemic challenges, creating opportunity for students/staff/faculty to come together and share ideas in a think-tank fashion, and modeling multi-party collaborative problem solving best practice. Sessions will be guided by moderators to introduce the topic and provide background information to the room; 2-3 additional speakers will share their respective view points on topics and pose questions for the room to discuss.   Speakers will be selected to represent perspectives on topic areas and act as conversational guides for roundtable discussions.  Topics might include Divesting Your University, Climate Change Resilience, etc.

Interactive Workshop Sessions will be styled in alternative formats for hands-on, experiential learning. Sessions can be outlined in any structure depending on the topic areas and learning objectives. Examples include how-to workshops, design charrettes or world cafes.  Proposals will be accepted for whole sessions only and require submitters to include a session outline and pedagogy to ensure interactive learning objectives are identified.  Topics might include Overcoming Silos, Effective Communication, Smarter Purchasing Systems, etc.

Collaboration Corner is a less-structured spaces for freestyle collaboration and experiential idea exchange.  This is a space for those who need to take a break from the conference atmosphere and engage in hands-on activities and multi-sensory learning.  Proposals will be accepted for whole sessions only and require submitters to include a session outline and pedagogy to ensure interactive learning objectives are identified.

The list of suggested topics is extensive, but potential presenters are urged to think “outside the box” in this area as well– submit a proposal on any topic that interests you:

Campus agriculture
Clean energy solutions
Climate action planning
Climate change resilience + readiness
Cost-saving operational measures
Cross-campus campaigns
Effective communication
Energy efficiency
Food procurement
Funding university sustainability projects
Green jobs and career services
Infusing the curriculum and student life with local
sustainability issues
Innovative technologies
Institutionalizing sustainability
Outdoor recreation
Overcoming campus silos
Preserving natural habitats
Procurement and business services
Responses to state legislation
Social justice
Sustainability education & research
Town-gown connections
Tracking progress
Transportation & alternative fueled vehicles
Zero Waste Strategies

The selection committee is particularly looking for innovative proposals that will inspire solution building in the sessions with attendees; assemble linkages between academia, curriculum, development projects, research and operations; tell stories that are transferrable between institutions and will launch discussion about overcoming the limitations of replication; and bring an engaging delivery of presentations and inclusive interaction for everyone.

Proposals are due October 25th, (admittedly, there is not much time left!); however, I urge you to submit a proposal anyway!

If you need additional information, please contact

One thought on “Candle Problems and Adaptive Challenges: Washington Higher Ed Sustainability Conference Call for Proposals

  1. Pingback: Association Conference on Adaptive Leadership: Change, Challenge, and Competence | Assessment, Learning, Teaching

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