The second talk I watched today, Scott Kim: The art of the puzzle, was fun. Kim defines a puzzle like this:

…what do I mean by puzzle? A puzzle is a problem that is fun to solve and has a right answer.

Kim’s puzzles are maybe more art than mathematical, but that is OK with me. It goes along with what Benjamin said about studying math in order to learn how to think. Puzzles require you to think. And that is why we use them in math class. They may ask you to match the percent and its equivalent fraction to create a hexagon or to use four numbers and the order of operations to come up with the numbers 1 to 25 or something else, but you can always learn. And I think you learn faster this way than from a “lesson”.

We did a puzzle the other day where groups of students used six clues to find a number from 1 to 100. Then they went on and did bigger numbers, which required more complicated clues. One of the students, a young man who is smart but has trouble focusing, was fascinated. As his group worked through several puzzles, I saw him take on a progressively larger role in the deliberations. When it was all over, he told me, “And I actually learned something!” And he had. If nothing else, he had learned how to think about numbers in a new way. The lesson was a success in my mind.

Puzzles are fun. And if we use them in math classes, they might even convince students that math can be fun. Of course, not everyone will respond that way, but if we catch a few of them, I’ll be happy!

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