7 Secrets to Using Great Puzzles in the Classroom or at Home

The Power of Puzzles

If you want to build students into great problem solvers, there is really no tool better than puzzles. Good puzzles engage students in productive struggle. They motivate them intrinsically. They remove the stress and anxiety that so many feel at school. Instead, they lead to feelings of wonder, inspiration, discovery, curiosity, and a love of learning. They build students’ sense of accomplishment, self-efficacy, and teamwork. 

Teachers and parents who use puzzles well report that suddenly their kids say things like “I can handle really tricky math problems” or “I get frustrated, but I know I can figure it out.” This is the power of puzzles.

Not all puzzles are created equal when it comes to motivating our students and helping them develop their problem-solving skills. Of course, simple puzzles like word searches have their place. Solving a straightforward maze can be fun. But it’s not so challenging, and after a while it can get boring. So we need really great puzzles in the mix. There are a few things to be aware of when introducing great puzzles to the classroom (or at home).

1. Puzzles Should be Challenging AND Fun!

To be great, a puzzle needs to be both challenging and fun. There’s a challenge with a clear goal: to discover a hidden answer. At the same time, the puzzle needs to feel like play—not like ordinary schoolwork. It’s an intriguing and tantalizing activity. Cool, even!

This combination of challenge and fun enables a state called flow. Flow is when you are so intensely engaged in a productive activity, you lose track of time. 

When you are in flow, your brain is firing on all cylinders. Your thoughts and emotions are fully locked in. You’re simultaneously challenged and compelled by this activity, with a level of difficulty that’s just right for you. You’re neither bored nor overly frustrated, because you’re making progress. 

To get students into flow, great puzzles need to be fun, first and foremost. The transformative effects of puzzles only work because of the fun.

Fun powers the intrinsic commitment to struggle toward success, while lowering the barriers to creative, resilient thinking. The struggle becomes positive and productive.

The fun factor enables true rigor, not the other way around. So if you have to choose, choose fun first.

To get students into flow, great puzzles need to be fun, first and foremost. The transformative effects of puzzles only work because of the fun.

Fun powers the intrinsic commitment to struggle toward success, while lowering the barriers to creative, resilient thinking. The struggle becomes positive and productive.

The fun factor enables true rigor, not the other way around. So if you have to choose, choose fun first.

A puzzle that isn’t fun is just plain old boring work, which will only be done for an extrinsic reward or to avoid a punishment.

Great Puzzle Do's and Dont's

Great Puzzle Do's

Great Puzzles DONT’s

Challenging and Fun

Challenging and Fun

Challenging and Fun

Challenging and Fun

Challenging and Fun

Challenging and Fun

2. Puzzles Should have Multiple “A-Ha” Moments

A great puzzle is not a riddle, with a single “a-ha” moment built in. It should have several steps to it, some twists and turns… almost like a great story.

This is why, unfortunately, puzzle books alone are usually a poor source for great puzzles. Puzzle books tend to go for quantity over quality. You get a lot of mazes in a maze book, a lot of Sudokus in a Sudoku book, and so on. 

Most of these puzzles are “just okay.” Part of the problem is that they become predictable. Too much predictability is boring. Solving predictable puzzles creates only a few “a-ha” moments. It starts to feel like a grind, like… homework! Compare this to the variety of modes of thinking required by an escape room. Or, staying with 2D pencil-and-paper puzzles, the joyous variety of puzzle types in an issue of Games magazine.

The good news is that you can take these “okay” puzzles and turn them into great ones with just a little tweaking. And we are going to show you how!

3. Puzzles Should be Calibrated to the Learner

A great puzzle has to be correctly calibrated. It can’t be too hard or too easy. 

At the beginning, a great puzzle should be both compelling and just a little forbidding. It should both draw you in and scare you a bit: this is impossible! There’s no way to figure this out! 

But on further inspection, you find a foothold, a handhold, a possible way in or forward. And you take that first step, then another… (See a master puzzle solver experience this here, starting at minute 3:30.)

In the process of solving a great puzzle, you should experience both struggles and victories. These victories should be little “a-ha” moments, when you finally overcome obstacles along the way to the major “a-ha” of getting to the final solution.

4. Puzzles Should Contain Obstacles that Feel Fair and Interesting

In turn, these obstacles should be fair: they should yield to good, solid thinking. And overcoming them shouldn’t feel like a slog. For instance, if you realize you need to add up some numbers by hand, it should be a few numbers, not fifty (unless there’s a cool trick you can reasonably figure out to add up fifty numbers, like the story of a young Gauss).

Or, once you figure out a tricky pattern, you should be able to use that pattern to relatively quickly find the solution (or interim solutions), rather than having to slog through lots more solving. 

Once you’ve figured out the shift of a Caesar cipher, the message should be at most a few sentences and not several paragraphs. You should always be weighing the work to the reward.

And it is not enough to create obstacles by doing the same type of puzzle over and over just at a harder difficulty. This is the approach taken by most “puzzle” books which feature 500 Sudoku or Crosswords with easy difficulty at the beginning and expert at the end. This approach does not work in classrooms because it turns puzzles into another worksheet-like activity that is largely about repeating a process over and over.

One way to avoid repetition is to combine obstacles within the same puzzle. For example, a somewhat complicated maze in which students pass certain numbers along the correct path can be fun. Students feel successful for getting through the maze. But then they realize they have a string of numbers. And they’re looking for a message. Better figure out how to turn those numbers into letters! Now that’s a few obstacles that make the  puzzle worth solving!

5. Puzzles Should Not Contain Too Many Instructions

Kids are so used to being given very direct and explicit instructions. And they find it dull!

Instructions make something feel like a test or a worksheet. They make it feel like just another day at school. Instructions do not feel creative or inspiring.

To use great puzzles in a classroom it is important to minimize, or even omit, instructions. After all, this is how video games work (and collectively, for better or worse, our kids have gotten pretty great at those!). Video game designers have learned that it’s much more interesting and fun to reduce instructions to their absolute minimum and instead let players discover the rules. (A great example of this is the simple beginning of A Dark Room.)

This can often feel scarier for the teacher (or parent), but don’t worry–we have plenty of tips for how to scaffold, leverage good hints, and adjust instructions to help calibrate the puzzle difficulty for different types of learners coming up.

6. Puzzles Should Take Some Time

While some great puzzles can be completed in 10-15 minutes, many excellent puzzles should take longer and be done over time. In fact, when starting with puzzles, we recommend introducing them for 5-10 minutes in class, but then letting the students sit with the puzzle and its struggles away from the classroom. 

Waiting a while to get to the answer gives your kids the opportunity to develop their “diffuse-mode thinking,” as Barbara Oakley calls it. In diffuse-mode thinking, your brain wanders, working in the background while you’re taking a walk or washing dishes. This mode is actually critical to both learning and problem solving, and we ought to proactively develop diffuse-mode thinking in our educational system.

Tests (and most homework) push students into focus-mode thinking, which is important but insufficient for solving important problems in the real world. Puzzles can help your students stretch a different part of their brain and develop critical new skill sets for the future.

7. Solving a Puzzle Should Feel Like its Own Reward

When you reach the end of the puzzle, it should be satisfying in and of itself. You should feel as if you’ve accomplished something worthwhile for its own sake. Remember, we are not trying to motivate students with carrots and sticks, we are trying to teach them that they are capable of overcoming challenges and accomplishing hard tasks. When people do these types of things well, it is because they are motivated by the challenge and experience themselves–not by points, grades, or extra credit. And along the way, puzzles can in fact teach you useful information. In his wonderful collection “The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book,” Alex Bellos wrote: “A good puzzle gives you the thrill of achievement and the joy of discovery at the same time.”

This is also why it’s critical to use hints purposefully and carefully while your students are solving a puzzle. Hints are an important part of calibrating the challenge and they help students continue to make progress. But hints that give away the farm end the challenge and take away from the sense of productive struggle and ultimate accomplishment that give puzzles their power. But don’t worry! We have lots of tips and tricks for using hints in ways your kids will appreciate and love.

Most importantly, have fun! Celebrate the process, not the outcome. And then break out another puzzle!

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