Head of School Blog: On Conundrums

One of my favorite podcasts is Slate Magazine’s Political Gabfest, in which a trio of panelists consider a trio of issues from that week’s news. Each year, as a change of pace, they host a “Conundrum” episode, wherein they invite listeners to submit “Would you rather…” type scenarios that they subsequently debate before a live audience. Examples range from the trivial (Would you rather put dirty clothes on your clean body or clean clothes on your dirty body?) to the profound (Is it really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?”).


A well-formulated conundrum is not only a lot of fun, it’s also good exercise for the kind of critical thinking skills that you will see on display in a Falmouth Academy classroom. Since my classroom is Morse Hall, I decided to close each All School Meeting for one whole week with a “conundrum-of-the-day.”  On Monday, for example, I asked, “Would you be willing to get the hiccups for 15 minutes every day in exchange for being illness- and injury-free until the age of 75?” And on Wednesday, I asked, “Would you rather stop aging at 35 and live for 35 more years or stop aging at 70 and live for 70 more years?” I even took an informal poll in response to the question, “If you could choose between superpowers, would you choose flight or invisibility?”


What I love about questions like these is there is really no right answer. The best conundrums set the room abuzz with conversation and debate; kids start seeking clarification on the details, looking for possible loopholes, envisioning the implications, the unintended consequences, of one choice or the other. You can usually judge a conundrum’s quality by three criteria: the number of times kids change their minds within minutes of it being posed, the extent to which they are still debating even after you have dismissed the meeting, and essentially by how hard it makes you think. (I bet you’re thinking right now!)


Thinking, and ultimately deciding, is one of the chief goals of education. As part of my fall class observation tour, I spent a period with Ms. Hough and her 7th graders. In the span of a single class, her students looked at an uncaptioned photograph and offered guesses as to what it depicted, presented before the class the paragraphs they had co-written, and set about analyzing Poe’s poem “The Raven.” In all three cases, the focus was not on right or wrong but on the use of evidence to support a theory or thesis. The big idea that emerged from that class was that the rightness of any answer is almost always a function of the evidence that one is able to muster on its behalf.  


And if you did not have a chance to read our recent blog post about one of Mr. Lott’s lessons: Financial Literacy: A Lesson on Credit,” I recommend it highly. Like Ms. Hough, Mr. Lott’s emphasis is on logical, evidence-based decision making. In her Washington Post essay titled, “Six Things Parents Can Do to Raise Confident Decision-Makers” Kate Rope offers us parents a few helpful tips: 1) Empathize, but don’t solve the issue, 2) Help your child listen to herself, 3) Provide structure, 4) Practice decision-making, 5) Encourage reflection, and 6) Discuss learning to live with regret.  She goes on to quote Emily Green, a child and family therapist in Atlanta, who says, “Parents are directing kids all the time and robbing them of age-appropriate decision-making practice. ­ We talk them out of it. We talk them into it. If we can press the mute button and pause, that’s where the growth comes in.”


Our shared goal is for our children to make good decisions, based on evidence, informed by sound values. As they evolve into young adults, the choices they will face will be more consequential and less binary. A range of decisions will lead to a range of outcomes. In some cases they will even have to choose the “least bad” option from a rather unappealing menu. Conundrums, so to speak.


For me, conundrums are just for fun, but they also tick off a number of items on Rope’s list; they give students a chance to practice decision making, to listen to themselves, and to reflect on what’s important to them. This might even be true of the frivolity I saved for Friday: “Would you rather have a pie with A+ filling and C- crust or with C- filling and A+ crust?” Now which would you choose?

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