Puzzle or Mystery

I have been reading What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell, a collection of essays he wrote for The New Yorker. In one of the essays he discusses the downfall of Enron, using the metaphors of Puzzles and Mysteries (originally coined by Gregory Treverton) ┬áto compare how different people (financial analysts, prosecuting attorneys, undergraduate students, etc.) described the circumstances that led to one of the largest U.S. companies to declare bankruptcy and thousands of people to lose millions of dollars in investments. According to Gladwell, a puzzle is sender-dependent. That is, someone has a missing piece of information that, when shared with others, makes all the other pieces fall into place. He uses the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden as an example. Bin Laden is out there somewhere, and there are people who know where he is. When (or if) one of those people gives a clue as to where he is hiding (if in fact he stays in one place for any length of time) it will greatly facilitate the task of locating him. Mysteries, on the other hand, are receiver-dependent. While puzzles are defined as having too little information, mysteries have too much information and it is up to the person to filter, categorize and organize that information into a framework that can be understood. He cites the propaganda surrounding the German’s development of the V-1 “Buzz Bomb,” as a mystery because the Germans were giving an enormous amount of clues about the V-1 project through their propaganda as a way to maintain the country’s morale. It was up to a group of experts who knew how to decode such messages to determine if (a) the bomb was even real or not, and (b) how urgent it was to find it. In this case, there was a lot of information about this weapon being sent out over the airwaves, but the common listener was not able to make sense out of it.

Along these lines, Gladwell’s evaluation of the events that led to the Enron collapse is that they were a mystery, rather than a puzzle. The prosecutors argued that Jeffrey Skilling was withholding vital information from shareholders in order to make them think the company was making more money than it really was. In fact, what Skilling and his accountants did was create vast amounts of convoluted information through thousands of extremely complex investing schemes, each of which were legal (though not very ethical or wise) and openly available to anyone who wanted to read them (if in fact one finds reading thousands of pages of legal jargon fun). The issue was not that Enron withheld data; the problem was in the fact that there was so much data that no one could make sense of.

As I wrapped up my class on teaching, learning and assessment, these metaphors came to mind again. Is teaching and learning a puzzle or a mystery? Are the solutions to the problems in education (lack of student engagement, lack of a “thinking curriculum,” performance gaps between different groups of students, just to name a few) still out there somewhere in Plato’s “world of Forms” waiting to be discovered? Has the right genius not yet entered his or her doctoral program (ask a first-year doc student what he or she hopes to accomplish in grad school and you will see my humor in this)? Has the right technology or reading/math series or game or teaching strategy or professional development just not been invented yet? Or is it that teaching and learning is not a puzzle at all? Perhaps teaching and learning, collectively, is a mystery. The human condition is so complex, filled with competing relationships, environments, conflicting messages, emotions, struggles, beliefs, values, attitudes, desires and needs. If each of these factors interact with each other and lead to self-identity, isn’t it safe to assume that these same factors will influence what my students and I bring to the learning table and what takes place between us? My message to my students was this: You have learned some skills that will help you teach, but don’t underestimate the importance of your ability to make sense out of your teaching environment. I threw around terms like “scaffolding,” “differentiation,” “formative and summative assessment,” “student engagement,” and “student- and teacher-centered instruction,” but I couldn’t realistically expect each person to leave my class able to do those things proficiently (it was the first time most of them had ever heard those terms or attempted to operationalize them). What I hoped would happen is that defining, talking about and grappling with these concepts would make my students aware that the need for these concepts exists. In other words, I was trying to make these concepts part of the perceptual filter they will take with them into the classroom. They will develop their ability to differentiate, scaffold, etc. over time, but they must first recognize these as tools that will help them make sense out of a complex learning environment. Otherwise, they will, at best, be constantly chasing after the next great idea, and at worst, teach as they were taught as the world evolves around them. Teaching and learning is indeed a mystery, and teachers must know how to decode and work within their environment in a way that is sensitive to the students they are serving.