It's A Puzzlement

puzzling mind

When I was a boy
World was better spot.
What was so was so,
What was not was not.
Now I am a man;
World have changed a lot.
Some things nearly so,
Others nearly not.

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know.
Very often find confusion
In conclusion I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure,
In my head are many facts..
Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!

There are times I almost think
Nobody sure of what he absolutely know.
Everybody find confusion
In conclusion he concluded long ago
And it puzzle me to learn
That tho' a man may be in doubt of what he know,
Very quickly he will fight...
He'll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!
Oh-h-h-h-h-h Sometimes I think that people going mad!
Ah-h-h-h-h-h! Sometimes I think that people not so bad!
But not matter what I think I must go on living life.
(Credit to Oscar Hammerstein from The King and I)

I am, as I think I have said, writing a book with my former student, Andy Hoffman. It is going to be set as a conversation between Andy and me. In getting going, I have been thinking about how I want my persona to show up. Of course, I will show up exactly as how each reader creates an image, no matter what I intend. Anyway, I got thinking about problem-solving as a possible way to frame what keeps me going. I am a pretty good problem solver, but, with a little reflection, I realized that this is not what I really love to do, and that is solving puzzles. These two mental exercises are not the same and the difference is important to my/our pursuit of sustainability.

Let me start with a conventional statement about problem-solving.

When a problem comes along, study it until you are completely knowledgeable. Then find that weak spot, break the problem apart, and the rest will be easy. - Norman Vincent Peale
Peale’s quote reflects our cultural proclivity, well-honed ever since RenĂ© Descartes developed his early version of what has become the scientific method. I am quite good at following Peale’s advice. After all, I have spent more than a third of my adult life at MIT as a student and then as a researcher. But it’s not the problems, big or small, that need to be addressed; it’s the puzzles that need solving, but these two kind of solving are quite different. I think I have been attracted to puzzles, not problems, for quite a while. Puzzles are easily trivialized as games or diversions. Sudoku, KenKen, crossword puzzles, and a myriad of puzzle apps for mobile devices. I do Sudoku and Kenken and the New York Time puzzles faithfully (in ink), and maybe this love for puzzles has spilled over into bigger things for me.

Sustainability is a big puzzle. It’s not just a complicated problem to solve. I looked up a few definition, hoping to get a clear sense of the difference between problems and puzzles. Puzzles have a few defining characteristics. They are enigmatic, baffling, bewildering, or perplexing. They test one’s thinking. Dealing with them requires ingenuity and persistence. “Solving” them may require an ability to recognize patterns and other higher-order properties of the puzzle. They cannot be simply defined and broken into small chunks.

Problems are questions we have to answer before proceeding on a predetermined path, perhaps in life or just in a math quiz. Problems arise without warning when our actions are stopped for any reason at all. In every case, problems have a fairly well-defined context out of which they emerge. Puzzles, other than diversionary things like jigsaw puzzles, emerge when a whole mess of troubling perceptions confront us, and all the paths we had thought were open become hidden by a cloud of bewilderment, to pick one of the several possible words to describe the loss of clarity and coherence.

Puzzle solving requires a different approach. The belief that there is an “answer” doesn’t fit, obviating all standard methodologies for problem solving. I am quite fond of the work of Rittel and Webber who coined the phrase “wicked problems.” On reading their paper closely, I would say that they are really talking about puzzles, not problems. And their 10 points about recognizing and dealing with wicked problems is really about taking on puzzles. Complexity creates puzzles to solve. I use “solve” with an implicit sense that one never solves puzzles in life, only in games. Unscramble maybe, or any other word that connotes removing the bafflement so that the puzzle can now be deconstructed and broken into problems that are solvable in the ordinary sense of the word.

The challenge in matters of sustainability or any other significant societal set of concerns is that bewilderment is a no-no in public life and in virtually every position of power. Hesitancy which will always accompany confronting on a puzzle shows “weakness.” Mencken might have been talking about puzzles, not problems, in his famous quote: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

Our society will need to learn the difference between puzzles and problems if we are to begin to address our big and baffling concerns, like sustainability. First, we need to be clear about the two words and their differences. Then we have to stop equating problem-solving skills with leadership. We need to attack our incapacity for dealing with puzzles from the top and from the bottom. Our schools are moving farther and farther from teaching the appreciation of puzzles and the critical skills that are needed for dealing with them. Teaching our children better math and science may expand their economic horizons, but it will surely limit their ability to work with the big puzzles facing us, today, and the even bigger ones that will face them as adults.

David Brooks, writing in today’s NYTimes, pointed to just the opposite: how our educational system is failing in this area.

Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that. The exact numbers are disputed, but the study suggests that nearly half the students showed no significant gain in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills during their first two years in college.
Maybe our centers of learning should scrap the present pedagogy, and let the students spend more time solving puzzles on their ubiquitous devices. The results he writes about may be related to the myriad of apps available to distract the students from their studies. Could it be that this so-called wasted time could actually produce some real puzzle-solving skills if properly harnessed?

|