Puzzles and Mysteries in the World of Education and College Access
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating article in The New Yorker magazine about our approach to problems as falling into two categories: puzzles and mysteries. Gladwell explains, “Puzzles come to a satisfying conclusion. Mysteries often don’t.” Puzzles are solved, or not, due to the availability of information on hand. Think of an electronic map application. Using my map app, I can find out how to get from Nashville to Memphis. However, the problem becomes more difficult if there is road construction and my map app does not show the construction. I need information of where the construction begins, ends, and any alternate routes. The answer exists. I just need the additional information to solve the puzzle. As Gladwell points out, “If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld the information.”
A mystery, on the other hand, is not as straightforward. Either information is inadequate to answer the question or there is such an overwhelming amount of information that it becomes difficult/impossible to determine which piece of information is important and which is not. Every additional piece of information, instead of making it easier to answer the question, adds to our confusion. As Gladwell states, “sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given.”
For too long, we have approached the inadequacies of education as if it were a puzzle. This was partly due to decades of poor and inadequate education research. Many believed if we simply improved the research and saturated ourselves in the information, the answers we were seeking would simply reveal themselves.
When we look at education reform as a puzzle, our efforts tend to be myopically focused on a single issue solution or a particular philosophical approach. Education reform is a mystery.
The world of education is now bathed in data including excellent research and analysis. But even providing people with solid research results and data does not necessarily mean that they will follow what it says. For example, a number of mostly non-education related organizations awaited the results of a study on teacher bonus pay (connected to raising student test scores), assuming the bonus incentives would improve student performance. They didn’t. When faced with the research, you would have thought that many of the organizations would have changed their position. Instead, they chose to simply ignore the results because the bonus incentive idea seemed to fit so nicely; a clear example of poor listening skills.
If we approach education and all of the academic disconnections as a mystery, new approaches, datasets, and analysis become available to us, and the conversation gets very complicated quickly. I’m not saying this to be true, but maybe, just maybe, our falling behind the world academically has very little to do with the educational system. Maybe we will discover we overvalued certain information to the detriment of other and, therefore, our assumptions about the issues are slightly askew.
Maybe the mystery has more to do with rising child poverty rates, poor nutrition, transportation funding cuts to after-school extracurricular activities, or an increased dependence on high-stakes testing. Maybe, while we think we are measuring academic performance, we discover it isn’t what we are measuring at all.
Maybe it has more to do with what we’ve pulled out of the curriculum (creative arts, physical education) than what we’ve added. What would be the reaction if we discovered that improved learning had more to do with a correlation between gas prices, predatory lending, food deserts, available nurses, obesity, and the minimum wage than it does with teachers unions?
I’m not saying any of these suggestions are true, but I’m willing to listen and embrace the mystery.
Bob Obrohta is the executive director of the Tennessee College Access and Success Network. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of St. Francis (Joliet, IL) and a master’s degree in higher education administration from Teachers College, Columbia University (New York, NY).