Creating An Educational Puzzle

Posted on April 16, 2012


I’ve set out on a path to try and create/discover puzzles for The Puzzle School that will help people learn a myriad of subjects by making the content more engaging and the process more motivating by presenting the content in a puzzle-like format rather than teaching the content directly.

Why are puzzles more effective? Well they’re not always. Sometimes a direct explanation is more effective. Usually this is when someone is already trying to figure something out and the content is one path they are exploring. If they already have a purpose in mind then the direct explanation is more effective at letting them explore and validate their theory more quickly.

When there is no purpose in mind or when that purpose is too open ended (I want to become fluent in Italian) then a puzzle can create a sense of purpose, making you work to discover the content in a way that reduces the outside noise.

If you wanted to learn Italian today you might take one of two approaches. You might move to Italy and try to figure out Italian by observing Italians as they speak to each other. That experience is essentially a puzzle, just a very hard one. Alternatively you might take an Italian class. Such a class would attempt to reduce the signal to noise ratio, allowing you to focus on the most important parts of the language through a direct explanation of what each word means. Such an approach would be more direct, but would remove the process of discovering what words and phrases me for yourself (and the pattern matching and frequent failures that is part of that process) that you would get from spending time in Italy.

A designed puzzle attempts to provide both of these advantages. It attempts to reduce the signal to noise ratio while still providing a sense of discovery through pattern matching and frequent but not serious failures as you try to figure out the answer.

That sense of discovery is the key component of a puzzle and how puzzles differentiate themselves from more traditional methods of education. A puzzle has to create a sense of discovery, where someone has to work to figure out the information. In a very simple format this might look like Italian Scramble, where you have to unscramble the words to discover the translation, rather than simply being presented the answer in order to memorize it.

It’s this effort to discovery that allows someone to challenge their own understanding, explore their best hypotheses (you can guess at each letter and see if it’s correct or not), learn from their failures and persist until they figure out the right answer. It doesn’t require anyone to tell them they’re right or wrong, the puzzle itself provides this feedback. This effort increases your sense of ownership in the information because you had to work to discover it rather than it simply being presented to you.

So as I look toward creating more puzzles and further refining the existing puzzles we have at The Puzzle School I’ll be trying to figure out how to create that sense of discovery while keep the signal to noise ratio as low as possible. Ideally students will feel that sense of discovery frequently, always challenged just enough so that the content doesn’t seem obvious, but not too hard as to discourage them from trying. Such an experience is at the heart of a great puzzle.