My students and I participated in the CS50x International Puzzle Day last weekend. The puzzles were difficult. VERY difficult! Most did not have instructions, which my students found baffling! We spent a class period on Friday doing the puzzles.
I built a pseudo-random name generator in Processing, which I used to draw their names for raffle prizes. On the list of prizes were CS50x stress balls, t-shirts, puzzles, 3D printed key-chains and more! Their homework was loosely defined as, “Do more work on the puzzles with your team to the degree that you find it fun.”
Monday morning, I found the outcome fascinating. In one of my classes, the majority of students had played around with the puzzles, noodling with some ideas, trying to make some connections. They hadn’t solved many of them, but felt a clear vibe of satisfaction at having made an effort and participating.
In the other class, the students reported that the puzzles were too hard and that they spent very little time thinking about them. I couldn’t stimulate the same rousing discussion about various approaches to these puzzles that I could in the other section. In fact, they seemed a little angry that the puzzles hadn’t come with better instructions.
I wondered what accounted for the difference in response: personality, stamina, interest? Was there some way in which I had communicated differently on Friday with these two groups? The class that had popcorn (I ran out– oops!) was more enthusiastic. Was food the key to enthusiastic puzzle solvers? More than half of the enthusiastic class had attended the CS50x AP Hackathon at The Browning School, whereas only two from the less enthusiastic class had attended. Did that reveal something?
I, on the other hand, spent much of the weekend texting with colleagues, competitively trying to solve the puzzles. In the end, we felt confident about four of our answers, which I submitted, and on Monday we laughed and continued puzzle solving, even though the “competition” was over. I talked with them about how much satisfaction we all got from talking about and thinking about these puzzles, and how uncomfortable the lack of directions made some of my students.
In the end, I think showing my students the satisfaction associated with trying to solve a seemingly impossible puzzle, even when you don’t succeed, is something I want to accomplish more often in all of my classes. I am working with colleagues to find ways to do better with this in my math as well as computer science. If students walk away from my class feeling empowered to approach very difficult problems and find satisfaction with them even when they don’t quite find an answer, only sawed away at it, I have taught them a skill that will help them in every area of life. This International Puzzle Day reinforced that for me.
Now, back to working on those puzzles!