What Puzzles Can Teach Us

It started as nothing more than a marketing pitch for my Tuesday afternoon math club.


Then I noticed that students were spending more time in the hallway staring at my door than they were talking to each other.


Then they started talking to me about their answers.


A few got it right on the first try.


Some shoved calculators in face and groaned when I told them their strategy was appropriate, but their final answer needed a little tweaking (not to mention a brief explanation of how they got there.)


Others chatted about it with a friend for a few minutes, wrote up their account of a friend’s explanation, and could then explain it to me independently.


Within 24 hours I had 26 correct answers and three different solutions from students.  My door looked like this: 

IMG_20170310_160605757_HDR (1)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this puzzle — not just the beauty of the question (try it, and if you get stuck, ask me for help and hints!) but also what this moment teaches me about being a teacher.  Here’s what I am thinking:



  • Content should always be at the center of our work.  I could have done more to make my handwriting neat or to color-code the question, but a passive presentation and my casual scrawl was sufficient. If we don’t have good content, students won’t be impressed no matter how much jazz and pizzazz we can put into something.
  • If we ask the right question, we don’t need to ask “Why do I need to know this?”  My old classroom overlooked a parking lot for a Walgreens.  This Walgreens parking lot, whether I liked it or not, was the source of endless curiosity, including questions like, “Does that Coca-Cola delivery truck ONLY have Coca-Cola in it?”  For this student, the Coca-Cola truck was a tantalizing item of inquiry and discovery — because it was there.   Students who approached the puzzle did so similarly.  It’s here, and I don’t need to know the answer.  But I want to. 
  • Try and try again.  A long time ago a friend in the sciences and I mapped out our ideal college science and math classes.  The defining feature?  Problem sets with the traditionally difficult questions of the college classroom, but unlimited trials and do-overs for answering questions.   We wanted an expectation that all students should be able to do the work, but that students had plenty of opportunities to revisit a challenge.
  • An enriched learning experience doesn’t always look, sound, or feel like a classroom.  I wasn’t expecting this puzzle to generate enough buzz that it nearly derailed independent reading (!)  one day.  My first instinct was to control and contain the noise and the chatter, but then I realized that for some students at that moment, life and learning merged.

Now I just have to figure out how to put up puzzles without taking away from independent reading time….


Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher from a family and community of math teachers.  Follow her on twitter @HMX_MSE


One thought on “What Puzzles Can Teach Us

  1. Amy Rasmussen April 17, 2017 at 4:31 pm Reply

    I heard a presenter once (wish I could remember her name) talk about the importance of using the same kind of critical thinking ‘puzzles’ or activities at the beginning of every class period. Some teachers turn to traditional bell ringer activities, but the beauty in a puzzle is the puzzlement. It’s an invitation to talk, which adds to any academic community. Like yours, my students read at the beginning of every class period, and this is a routine we stick to with fidelity — but I am thinking that at least once a week, we could start with something that puzzles us, then work to unlock it. I can see how to easily connect that with rhetorical analysis.


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