Puzzles Are Misunderstood

Posted on April 18, 2012


More and more I believe that puzzles represent one of the, if not the, most effective way to approach education. More and more everyone I explain this too looks at me like I’m crazy.

This makes me think that I’m either crazy and need to come to my senses (I’m really wrong) or I’m on to something and, if I can figure out how to show others what I see, then it could have a huge impact (I’m really right). As much as I’d like to believe the latter, it’s very hard to ignore the former.

Most people see puzzles as fun brain teasers, or things like cross-word puzzles or Sudoku that are fun hobbies that might help keep your brain healthy as you age. I think puzzles represent something far more important than are given credit for.

I became interested in puzzles when I realized, after college, that I was enjoying learning much more than I had when I was in school. I was teaching myself to program, I was building products and teaching myself how to run a company, I was teaching myself how to play guitar and golf, etc. etc. I realized that I was enjoying it because I was approaching each of these things like it was a puzzle. I needed to figure out the patterns and the strategies that would unlock the secrets that made these things so easy for experts. That is the essence of solving a puzzle. You usually can solve a puzzle through brute force, by just trying the same thing over and over, but it would take forever. Puzzles are designed to encourage you to look for patterns and develop strategies that help you solve them more quickly and efficiently.

It turns out that humans are very good at pattern matching and developing strategies that have allowed us to survive and thrive in a very complex world. Experts are experts because they are able to accomplish things that novices can not accomplish with equal or less effort. That’s because they’ve discovered the patterns and strategies that let them do this. I’m an “expert” programmer not because I know all of the facts about programming, but because, through lots of experience, I have begun to recognize the patterns that allow me to make better decisions with minimal information and minimal effort. I see things that novices don’t see.

Puzzles teach us how to do this more effectively. They reduce the signal to noise ratio of the outside world and make it easier to recognize the patterns, but they don’t just tell us the patterns so we will still have the opportunity to test hypotheses and explore, fail frequently, and iterate on our hypotheses, just in a more efficient way than you could in the real world.

Puzzles are serious business. They can take advantage of the greatest skills humanity has to offer and channel them in very efficient directions. Recently someone playing with a puzzle on the website FoldIt (Solve Puzzles For Science) was able to solve an important puzzle that had baffled thousands of professional scientists. The skills required to solve these puzzles are applicable to starting a business, writing a novel, composing music, curing diseases, discovering new forms of energy, etc. Every one of these activities and thousands more are essentially puzzles.

That’s why I’m trying to leverage puzzles in education and convince people that puzzles are the key to unlocking so much of our potential as human beings. It’s why I’ve started The Puzzle School. I might be crazy, but I still think there’s something important here.