The Puzzle School

Posted on March 12, 2012


Given the opportunity to start a school right now I think I would call it “The Puzzle School”.

The Puzzle School would be focused on leveraging puzzles as an optimal way to engage students in learning.

Why Puzzles?

First of all, I’m using a loose definition of a puzzle. In order for me to consider something a puzzle it needs three requirements:

  1. Autonomy
    • The puzzle should require little to no instruction. Someone should be able to sit down and start to figure it out on their own (maybe a little bit of instruction is necessary, but it should be very little).
    • The puzzle should lend itself to numerous strategies or ways to attack it. This is why little to no instruction should be necessary. It should be likely that you will start with one strategy only to evolve in to a different strategy as you get better at it.
  2. Progress
    • As you get better at the puzzle you should know it without anyone having to tell you you’re getting better. It should be obvious that you are making progress and moving closer to a goal (even if that goal is just a better understanding of a subject matter). The more frequent the sense of progress presents itself, the better. The more often the learner gets a sense that their work is accumulating toward a larger goal, the better.
  3. Purpose
    • There must be a sense of purpose involved. This doesn’t have to be grandiose, it should just be relatively obvious. At the simplest level are actual puzzles where you know the end result you are working toward, but you need to figure out how to get there. At higher levels this can evolve in to more complicated purposes, but a learner should never have to ask “why am I doing this?”.

I think these three motivating factors are some of the strongest intrinsic motivators and should be the cornerstones of a high quality education. Puzzles are very effective at delivering these motivators, frequently leading to a sense of “flow” as you engage with a quality puzzle. For years Montessori education has based itself in these types of activities.

The Puzzle School would be very similar to a Montessori school. There would be no testing, no homework, no requirements at all. There would be some differences, though:

  • Students would be in charge of their school. Much like Summerhill, giving the students greater responsibility and purpose in their own education. This would essentially turn the whole school in to a puzzle that the students try to gradually improve.
  • Educators and students would be challenged to try and find the best puzzle-like activities, toys, software, etc. that would help another to learn new material. With no requirements at all, the value of these puzzles would simply be based on how much new learners engage with them.
  • Ideally there would be multiple puzzles that a new learner can engage with on a specific subject, some would be more activity/group based, some would be physical puzzles, and others would be software based. The diversity of strategies would both encourage a deeper understanding of new material as well as make that learning more accessible and scalable (physical toys have tactile benefits while software is more accessible and scalable, but both are very beneficial).

At the end of the day the primary goal would be to get students to engage with learning because they want to, not because they have to. The only way to gauge the success of this will be to see how excited the students are to go to school each day and I think one of the most optimal strategies for this is to develop learning puzzles for all subjects that deliver learning that is truly engaging, enjoyable, and satisfying.

I also think the name, “The Puzzle School”, will provide the expectation of an environment that is truly interesting and engaging, much the same way Patch Adam’s Gesundheit! Institute sets the expectation of a fun, more human medical facility.