Creating Perplexity


Dan Meyer gives this fantastic keynote at CUE 2014. Honestly, it is one of the best keynotes that I have heard in a long time where learning and technology are concerned. He cuts to the chase and lays out what really makes learning contagious, interesting, meaningful… and couples effective pedagogy with technology in a very simple way. It’s not rocket science here.

  1. Look around your world for things that are interesting and perplexing at the same time (technology can help)
  2. find some what to capture that perplexity (technology can help)
  3. and then share this with students (technology can help)
  4. … then, of course, help them resolve this perplexity.

I’m not going to rehash his entire keynote here, so go and watch it. I’ll wait – it is so worth your time. Then, spend some time reflecting on your practice and on what learning likes like in your classroom. Yes, he’s a math teacher, but the specific discipline doesn’t matter here. How are you finding, capturing and sharing the perplexities of your discipline with your students? The world in all its glory is fascinating and perplexing. Why do we start our lessons with the day’s objective and a laundry list of “stuff to know”? Why are we surprised when our students seem less than interested in “what they need to know”? How are you creating within them a NEED TO KNOW – a burning desire to know? This… this is truly the hard and good stuff of teaching.

Now, as a teacher in higher education, I am personally just as convicted and challenged by this message. Yes, I often default to telling my students what and why they need to know. I even set up meaningful experiences for them to practice and apply what  they need to know and be able to do. For many, if not most, they get this. However, powerful it may not be. It keeps learning relatively passive and focuses on compliance over really making meaningful connections and letting curiosity and interest drive the learning. The learning tools are fantastic and really can help along the way, but the tools in and of themselves are a cheap replacement for a meaningful and perplexing problem to solve. It is the perplexity and problem that gives the tool meaning and purpose.

I love the concept of ‘hard fun’ that Seymour Papert unpacks a little bit here. If we begin learning on the notion of compliance, this becomes largely unattainable. Any perplexity or complexity we try to introduce is largely artificial and students know it. In another article, Toward the Pedagogy of Idea Power, Papert writes, “You have to mess with actual ideas. But this is the kind of hard that will make teaching more interesting, just as idea work will do this for learning.” What is your “pedagogy of idea power”? How much messing around with ideas do you do? How much messing around with ideas to you help your students do? Perplexity is the perfect impetus for messing around with ideas. Technologies provide the perfect tools for extending what is possible with such messing around. I really see a connection between Papert’s pedagogy of idea power and Meyer’s finding, capturing, and sharing perplexity.

So, I’ll leave you with this haunting statement that Dan makes in his keynote. How are you finding, capturing and sharing the perplexities of your discipline with your students?

2 thoughts on “Creating Perplexity

  1. Hi Steven,
    I stumbled onto your blog just now and this article fascinated me. I love the talk from Dan Meyer. It would be great if many teachers though the way he does and more importantly used perplexity as a means of teaching.
    I believe the message spreads out much wider than teaching. It can be used in bringing up our children (which has some correlation to teaching), leadership, coaching and even sales.
    You sparked a thought inside my brain, that will influence the way I try to bring my point across.
    Thanks for that!!
    Have a wonderful day

  2. Alexander,
    I’m glad you stumbled over here. You’re right that this has applicability beyond teaching. The world is full of wonder. It’s such a shame when we miss it or try to reduce it to sets of facts.


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