Green Eggs and Ham

Green Eggs and Ham was published in 1960. It is a children’s book, written by Dr. Seuss and contains only 50 words; a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

Dr. Seuss was challenged to write a book which contained no more more than his previous publication, The Cat In The Hat, which used 236 words. He took up the challenge and smashed it.

Green Eggs and Ham was an immediate bestseller and has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. It is consistently voted among the best children’s books of all time in the U.S. by children, teachers and parents.

The book’s appeal derives from the constraints under which it was written. It has a simple beauty; an elegance arising from the limit on the raw materials from which it was constructed. Had the author been free to choose from the breadth of the English language, nothing so rhythmic and intriguing would have arisen. Creativity blossoms not from infinite choices, but from the act of painting with a limited pallet.

The constraints Dr. Seuss operated under included a limit on vocabulary, but also the need to create a narrative understandable to a child. The rules of grammar were applied (with some artistic licence), and from the words came meaning, peppered with wit and oddity. Vocabulary, grammar, narrative – a witches brew from which spells are cast.

The Green Eggs and Ham story reminds me of the construction of a school timetable, although the constraints are far more numerous. Every timetable has X staff in Y rooms over Z days. There are A subjects, B year groups and C lessons for each subject. Each of the teachers has the ability to teach different subjects, to different levels. Some staff will work all week, and some only part-time, and these will vary in their preferred working pattern. Others will have responsibilities which take them away from the classroom. Some subjects must be taught in specialist rooms and staff will often want their ‘own’ room, or to move around as little as possible. And then there are the students; grouped by age, set according to the preferences of the school and department, mixed together to  elicit unpredictable chemical reactions of personality.

Constructing a timetable has been compared to a multi-dimensional Sudoku puzzle, but it is far more complicated than that. What makes a timetable fiendishly difficult to create is the people, not the logistics. Timetabling requires insight into the mind of each participant in the daily drama of school life; how each will act, react and interact. A technician can allocate an adult and 30 children to a room, and give them a subject to teach. Only an artist can make the logistics of school a thing of beauty. Unlike Green Eggs and Ham, it is a complex, sophisticated beauty, but it is no less born of constraint.

Schools are full of such swampy problems. The word ‘problem’ has negative connotations in everyday use, but I use it here in a neutral way; it is a matter that requires a decision so that there may be progress towards a desired goal. To lead anything in a school is to continuously find the best way forward to achieve desirable outcomes. These decisions are rarely simple because, as with timetabling, the problems have multiple dimensions, almost infinite solutions, and no right answer. Schools are complex, constantly evolve, and relations between cause and effect are loose, intertwined and unclear. We can find frustration and despair when bombarded with seemingly endless and unsolvable problems, or we can embrace the ambiguity and find joy in the act of creation. Swampy problems will only feel like quicksand if we allow them to pull us under.

Psychologists estimate that we make perhaps 35,000 decisions each day. Most of these are unconscious; we fly on automatic pilot. We need not think to tie our laces because we have practised and rehearsed this act hundreds of times. Our conscious mind simply could not cope with making all our daily decisions, so we defer to our vastly more powerful and competent unconscious. Our conscious mind is free to tackle the novel problems, but too much novelty and we overload. There is a thin line between exhilarating challenge and burnout.

I recently joined a colleague in solving a cryptic crossword. Unused to tackling such things, I was unfamiliar with the unwritten ‘rules’ of the game. The clues looked incomprehensible to me, but when the rules were explained I could help to figure out the answer. “That means it is an anagram of this word”, she would say, or “we need a synonym for…”. I had the knowledge and the wit, but the information I needed to decide the clue was hidden. After a short while, I began to internalise the ‘problem states’, that is the typical patterns and formations of clues. With continued practise, the decoding would become intuitive; my conscious mind able to focus on the novel aspects of the problem. This is what it means to become expert.

The constraints we work within can unleash the joy of creative problem solving, but to begin with can overwhelm us. Expertise takes time and we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if those swampy problems occasionally drag us down. (1960)
Swampy problems – Lethwood, Begley & Cousins (1992)
Complex, evolving, loosely linked systems – Hawkins & James (2016)

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