My family likes doing jigsaw puzzles. If you’ve ever done a puzzle, you know the drill: you buy a puzzle that has an interesting picture that hints at the right degree of difficulty, you spill the pieces on the table, and using the cover as your guide, you spend many enjoyable hours putting that puzzle together. About that all-important cover: It tells you where you will end up when you’re done and, during the process, it helps understand the myriad inscrutable puzzle pieces dotted around your table. Only the most hardcore puzzle fanatics, those seeking the greatest challenge, do away with the box cover — and even they look at it before starting the puzzle and put it away only after they begin their work. The cover is context and, for puzzlers, no matter how much or how little they ultimately rely on it, context is king.
What constantly boggles my mind is how educators seem so immune to context’s benefits. At traditional school, educators have adopted an incremental approach. To this end, they break difficult materials down into bite-sized abstract pieces, confident that when the kids have mastered a sufficient number of these pieces, they will have a sudden, blinding revelation about the whole. In sports, coaches teach the kids individual techniques and skills, but they forget to give them an overarching picture of the game, its strategies, goals and rules. In chorus, they begin to teach the kids the lyrics and hand out the music by measure, without ever just singing the song for the kids.
Actually, all of these methods work, at least for the bright kids, who have committed teachers and education-rich home and school environments. What irritates me about the whole situation is that it’s such a crazy, difficult way to do things. It’s the opposite of Occam’s razor, with the educator choosing the most difficult, infelicitous, circuitous route to conveying information. It gives children neither goals nor guidelines. Children feel frustrated and lost, just as the amateur puzzle-maker feels frustrated if his box cover vanishes.
My question for you, because it’s one I am completely unable to answer despite years of asking it of myself, is why do people think there is a virtue to teaching kids in puzzle pieces, without ever showing them the larger picture?