Puzzles and learning

Learning, as opposed to acquiring or consuming knowledge, is a complex process. We educators have known this for a very long time, but what learning entails isn’t always so obvious to others. While the acquisition of knowledge is critical to the learning process, the real learning comes with how we structure, link, network that knowledge into a coherent framework. Sometimes, this requires us to simply place a new piece of knowledge within a framework where it fits, but doing so blindly can lead us astray.

Two nights ago, I was enjoying dinner with my daughter, a twelve-year old, and she spoke of school and of the tasks her teacher set the students. One of these tasks was to ponder lateral thinking puzzles, something that forcefully grabbed my attention. And it did this because such puzzles require of us to suspend some of our frameworks, or to attempt to venture outside of them in order to learn.

I asked her for an example of a puzzle and she gave me the following.

A man is walking through the woods sees a cabin. He walks up to it and sees two people, strapped to chairs, covered in blood, obviously dead. How did they die?

I had no interest in handing her the solution but, rather, asked her how she was approaching the question. She thought the answer was relatively straightforward, except for the fact that they were strapped to chairs. Why would they be strapped to chairs, she asked. She was thinking. There was something about the scenario that didn’t fit. However, instead of considering what this might be, despite the question, she proceeded to speak of bears and other gruesome ways the people died.

One of the courses that I have been privileged to teach is titled Theory of Knowledge. In this course we, as a group of people, consider how understanding is constructed within various disciplines and beyond. We look at cultural influences, the power of media and other experiences and how these bind us to certain ways of looking at the world that limit our perspective. We become habituated and, as such, forge assumptions about how things are. This limits us if we are not aware that this is how we think.

A close colleague of mine recently spoke of schema: a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. A stereotype can be thought of as a form of schema. While schema can be, and are, very useful because they allow us to filter out information that doesn’t seem relevant, they also limit us for the very same reason. The information that we disregard may be relevant but because it doesn’t fit with our pre-existing beliefs of how the world is, and so we reject it. In doing so, we also limit possibilities that may otherwise exist

And this is what happened in our conversation about the cabin in the woods. This isn’t surprising given that the environment in which this girl lives is just a short drive away from woods dotted with cabins (or cottages as they are called here). There is a mental picture present, and that is the framework within which she was operating. While she asked why people might be strapped to the chairs, she attempted to solve this by trying to work out who had tied these people down and why.

Time for a question. If you were a pilot, what might you be thinking if posed this puzzle? Put yourself in the place of a pilot.

I could virtually see her mind working through the facial expressions I witnessed.

Oh! Its not a house cabin, it’s a plane cabin? And the two people are pilots and it crashed?

I smiled. I’m not sure why you asked me a question, I responded. What you could do now is see whether your explanation fits in with all the information that exists

We then went on to talk about assumptions and stereotypes and goals and how these work and how they may shape what we come to understand and, therefore, how we act. We also spoke of language and the power of language to limit us to certain domains. Not in these words, of course, but in ways that we could explore. We considered what other cabins there may be and whose experience would put these in the forefront of their minds, and what this might mean when they were trying to solve the puzzle.

We talked for a little more, until she began to get weary of thinking, as humans do. It was time to finish this little interlude.

Why don’t we finish up now? I suggested to her. You have worked hard this little while. But there is one more question I have for you, not one that you need think about or answer now, or ever to me. And that question is “What do you think the purpose of such puzzles is?”

Richard Elzey – Cabin in the Woods

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