Sharing our Puzzles of Practice

Einstein is often quoted as having said “If I have an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Clearly Einstein understood how to attack puzzling problems. As teachers we face a host of puzzles on a daily basis. Every student we teach, thanks to their idiosyncrasies presents a unique puzzle. The interactions between students further complicates things. Our goals for our learners, their learning needs, the demands of the curriculum, pressures from beyond the classroom all result in puzzles for us to manage and to solve.

Sometimes the approach taken by teachers is one analogous to the Hollywood action hero. We rush headlong into the situation relying on our past experience and bravado to win the day. Time is of the essence and the solution must be applied immediately. We act our way towards a solution and when at first we don’t succeed we try and try again. Such an approach to problem solving is a typical human response. We are short on time and thinking is hard work. Stopping and digging beneath the surface of what is going on might be the approach we advocate as intelligent beings but in the spur of the moment we respond to what we see right there in front of us or we use the methods which have become routine. 

Taking the time to truly understand our puzzles can be challenging. The process begins with realising that we indeed have a puzzle and that we do not have the ideal solution already in our tool-kit. More than that we need to recognise that we have a puzzle that we do not fully understand. Maybe this comes when we see our initial efforts are not working. By this time the puzzle is likely to have been made worse and when our mishandling includes puzzles involving people we are likely to have shifted into damage control. 

A culture that embraces and rewards the identification of puzzles is an important piece of the wider solution. In schools this can be particularly challenging to achieve. With each of us isolated in our classroom it is easy to imagine that we alone are kept awake at night by our puzzles of practice. We imagine that every other teacher knows the answer and that if we share our puzzles we may be seen as unable to cope. Such fear is a danger to a profession facing great complexity and rapid change. Our puzzles are only likely to increase in size and quantity as we explore models of teaching and learning best suited for “post-normal” times. 

Taking the time to share and explore our puzzles has been the theme for a group of Sydney based teachers over the past twelve months. Project Zero Sydney Network was founded as a collective of teachers keen to share their learnings from Harvard’s Project Zero. The focus has been on classroom practices that result in quality learning outcomes for students; life-worthy learning within a culture of thinking. We are united by our Puzzles of Practice and our strength has come from our willingness to share not just solutions but our puzzling puzzles. We have seen that the more time we spend unpacking and understanding the puzzles we confront the more likely we are to find solutions which work. 

For teams looking to explore puzzles there are a host of tools which can be leveraged once the right culture is in place. One place to begin is with thinking routines. As David Perkins explains, thinking is hard work and something we are not very good at, so we need tools to make our thinking more effective. Two simple strategies are:

Circle of Viewpoints - Should you need to understand a complex problem with multiple stakeholders this routine is ideal. It encourages you to see the perspective of each person or group and to understand how they are approaching the situation. It develops new questions and puzzles to be explored that had not been seen before alternate perspectives were considered. 

Circle of Viewpoints - a thinking routine that will help you see diverse perspective and look at a situation from another person's point of view. Useful in small groups.

  1. Brainstorm a list of different perspectives and then use this script skeleton to explore each one:
    1.  I am thinking of ... the topic... From the point of view of ... the viewpoint you've chosen
    2.  I think ... describe the topic from your viewpoint. Be an actor – take on the character of your view- point
    3.  A question I have from this viewpoint is ... ask a question from this viewpoint
  2. Wrap up: What new ideas do you have about the topic that you didn't have before? What new questions do you have? Record your thinking with a mind map, locating differing points of view around a circle.

Connect, Extend, Challenge - is ideal when you are dealing with complex and new circumstance. It encourages you to identify what you are familiar with in the situation, what is new and what is challenging.  

  1. How are the ideas presented Connected to what you already know? What new ideas are presented that Extend what you know? What is still Challenging for you about the new topic and/or its connection with prior learning? 
  2. Use individually recording your responses on paper or in a group with each member responding to the three questions in turn.

As our puzzles increase in complexity we require strategies that unlock the wisdom of the collective. Such a strategy can be found in the “Brainstorming Possibilities Protocol”. Protocols are a structured conversation that establishes the circumstances for constructive dialogue. The imposed structure of a protocol can at first be confronting and seem awkward, but it is the structured nature of the protocol which allows for conversations which would otherwise be stifled by social convention. In the “Brainstorming Possibilities Protocol” one member of a group presents a puzzle, describing the context and why the puzzle matters to them. The facilitator allows time for clarifying questions before pausing the discussion and giving time for the group to ponder potential solutions. After this time the group shares their potential solutions. When sharing a possible solution the group members are careful to use language that reinforces that their idea is just a suggestion. The presenter is referred to in the third person and response take the form “One possible solution that Mary might like to try is  . . .” or “I wonder if Mary might find this idea useful  . . .”. At the conclusion the presenter is given time to share their reflections on the suggestions and the group reflects on the process. 

Once we recognise that we all have puzzles that we struggle with we open the door to solving them intelligently and collectively. As Simon Sinek states in his little book of inspiration “Together is Better”. By spending more time with our puzzles and avoiding the rush to apply potential solutions, we are more likely to find the best response and enjoy the process along the way.  

By Nigel Coutts