Why Puzzles Are Important

My 14 year old daughter is an amazing test taker. She missed one week of school last April due to the flu, missing almost the entire unit on writing equations of lines in 8th grade Algebra. My trying to teach her the missing lessons went about as smoothly as my husband trying to teach our older daughter how to play the piano...the only instrument she plays now is the ukelele.

The 14-year old knew that if she wanted to get into Geometry in 9th grade she had to score well on the CST's. (California State Tests, also known as STAR). I  "helped" her study for the test by providing her with all the released questions. The "helping" I did was mostly to keep her company and stay the heck out of her way. She would read the question. If she knew the answer she would find it, then read the others to make sure she isn't missing something slightly deeper than she thought at first. If she had no clue, she looked for the answers that made no sense whatsoever, then try to work backwards with what was left. I was fascinated. We had never directly taught her these skills. When I asked her about where she learned how to do that...she just said, "Duh, it's logical Mom."

I know that we brought up our children playing SCAN and SET and MAYA MADNESS and all other sorts of puzzles and logic games. I see my own child find joy in figuring out stuff and I "hit" this "play" button in my classroom.

She scored Advanced on the Algebra STAR and is enjoying her year in Geometry.

I bring all this up because of the new situation I am in, being a veteran teacher in a new district. How humbling to be on the formal evaluation end of teaching again. I am appreciative of the opportunity to reflect on my craft and think more deeply about why I do what I do.

Recently I was "dinged" for moving away from "traditional lessons" and using a puzzle (the Tarisa puzzle I shared earlier) that involved "cutting" and "putting a puzzle" together. This type of lesson "distracted from my objective." Now, I will grant you that I did not have a "pre-meeting" to explain the objective I had, though had I been given the opportunity, I am not sure I would have had the insight I have now.

Why are puzzles important? First, the students had to know the properties of exponents to answer the questions on the "domino" pieces to know how they fit together. Academic objective. Check. A puzzle to motivate. Hook objective. Check. Cutting out the dominoes AFTER they figured out the solutions. Hmm...14 and 15 year olds. I am certainly not going to cut them out! Anticipation objective. Check. Working together, blowing off steam, socializing, and appealing to the kinestetic learn objective. Check. Critiquing the reasoning of others objective. Wow. Check. Constructing viable arguments objective. Wow. Check. And the bonus objective, the one most valuable to me really, is having the "four or three or six" pieces that don't match and what to do with them, and the organic math arguments that arise in the process of elimination. CHECK! 

And you know what else? Helping scaffold for ELL students. Learning language is...social.

I think I did my job. Do you? Why else do you like puzzles? I would love to hear from you. 

Friend and Master Teacher Shawn makes these very, very important points:

Puzzles are important because they are:
A. fun
B. interesting
C. infinitely changeable in that you can do whatever you want with them, not just what the author intended
D. help people understand that strategy is important and so is luck
E. help people determine that last time I did this it worked, so I should do that again OR maybe I'll try another strategy
F. Are opportunities to engage with many strategies leading to many answers and often asking necessary questions to unlock another potential strategy.
In other words: puzzles are artistic representations of static (boring) questions. Experience with puzzles allow for artistic (creative) solutions and process.
I love that Shawn reminds us that puzzles are fun! I love Shawn, I really do.

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