Puzzle-Based Learning

Posted on May 24, 2012


Have you ever seen those creative answers to tests that make their way around the Internet? If not, here are a few:

Hard Water

Signed At Bottom

Take Out Centi

Find X

These answers were of course marked incorrect, but they are all actually correct. In many ways they represent the most useful skill we can encourage in students, creativity. In the real world the ability to flip a problem over and arrive at a solution from a novel angle is a very valuable skill.

It is exactly this type of thinking that I want to encourage with Puzzle-Based Learning. Although it is very similar to the already popular Project-Based Learning, Puzzle-Based Learning seeks to provide opportunities for students to discover creative answers to a solution.

Rather than provide an assignment, present a puzzle that has many possible paths a student can explore. Ideally the student will go down a number of failed paths before arriving at one that works, giving them even more context to the learning.

There should be many working paths, but the puzzle should be self-assessing¬† so that the student knows when a working path has been discovered without any additional feedback. For example a puzzle might be to get a ball in to a basket positioned near the roof given only the materials in the classroom. There are thousands of ways such a challenge could be achieved and, as soon as the student gets the ball in the basket, they know they’ve achieved a correct solution. No other feedback is required from the teacher.

If students are completing the puzzle in unsatisfactory ways then the puzzle is the issue, not the students. The point of the puzzle is to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio so that valuable information can be discovered. If the students are solving the challenge without discovering the information then the students should be celebrated for outsmarting the puzzle and the puzzle should be improved.

The autonomy and clear purpose of Puzzle-Based Learning (you can take many paths, but the purpose is clearly defined) is highly motivating. A student may decide that the purpose is not worth achieving, killing off the motivation, but again this would simply be an opportunity to improve the puzzle so that the end goal is more enticing (although I would stay away from extrinsic rewards such as a prize for competing the puzzle – even if such a strategy would likely work).

Puzzle-Based Learning also encourages students to realize that there is almost always numerous solutions to a given problem. Each solution has it’s pluses and minuses and the value is not only in coming up with a solution, but with evaluating a number of possible solutions for a more optimal one. These skills are crucial in the real world.

At the end of the day Puzzle-Based Learning and Project-Based Learning look very similar most of the time. With Puzzle-Based learning, though, the point is to focus on providing a sense of autonomy, discovery, creativity, and self-assessment, where as with Project-Based Learning those specific objectives are not as focal to the methodology.

It’s the goal of The Puzzle School to create an environment where Puzzle-Based Learning can take place as frequently as possible.