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Innovative 21st Century Teaching and Learning

Puzzles versus Mysteries

I have just been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw (Allen Lane, 2009), and one of the articles in the book had me thinking.

In this particular chapter of the book called “Open Secrets” Malcolm discusses a distinction made by a national security expert (Gregory Treverton) between puzzles and mysteries and the different skills involved.

Something is a puzzle when we have to figure something out from not having enough information. Finding Osama Bin Laden is a puzzle. As Gladwell points out ” The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source, bin Laden will remain at large”. Watergate was a puzzle where Woodward and Bernstein were search for a buried secret.

Something is a mystery when there is too much information and one is required to sift through the information and use one’s judgement and assessment to come to a conclusion. Gladwell used the cases of Enron and the British Intelligence prediction of the German V1 Rocket to show the distinction.

Now, while Gladwell is using his article to explore and examine the different skills required in the intelligence community given the nature of the world, it had me thinking about teaching and our schools.

Are we skilling our students to just solve puzzles or are we also preparing them for a information rich world where they also need the capacities to solve mysteries?

The actions of a puzzle solver would be to find more and more information that would shine a light on the puzzle one would wish to solve. When one is researching for a cure for cancer, or a new theory about physics, or why the beetles in a particular area of the bush are dying … then one would need to gain more information. Many thriller movies (e.g. The Davinci Code) and video games are based on puzzle solving. The blockers to resolving an issue would be factors like withheld information, lack of funding to do the research, etc. As Gladwell states “puzzles come to a satisfying conclusions”.

Mysteries, however, require another set of capacities because they are a lot “murkier”. It is like having a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle with an extra 500 pieces that look similar and could fit in the mix. Sometimes the information we have is inadequate or inconsistent. Sometimes having more information clouds up the issue. Sometimes the question asked itself cannot be answered (perhaps it is the wrong question or one that does not reveal what is actually being looked for). Mysteries require people with skills of analysis, of judging what is useful and consistent and what is not. Gladwell suggests, “it requires more thoughtful and skeptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know …”.

Are we not in a world where information is plentiful and there are many more inconsistent and contradictory references? When a student, or a teacher for that matter, wants to know something what is the first thing they do? Probably use a search engine (e.g Google) or go to Wikipedia. But there are reams or information there to sift through. What is accurate, precise or even relevant?

My question to you, as someone reading this blog, is are you preparing your students (or in the case of parents … your children) to solve mysteries? To be people who challenge ideas and are skeptical about information until it can be validated and made consistent in its pattern. To be people who network and ask questions to fit the information into a coherent whole. One capacity of someone who is a mystery solver is someone who challenges the status-quo. Do we do that as teachers and parents?

I suspect that, for the most part, we are purely preparing our students’ and children to be puzzle solvers. And that is not preparing them for even now … let alone the future.
February 10th, 2010 @ 9:38AM