Making The Puzzle School A Reality

Posted on June 1, 2015


As of Friday I’ve left Pivotal Labs and am back on the path toward making The Puzzle School a reality.

Before I get in to the details about The Puzzle School and how my thinking on it has evolved, I want to mention a project I’m working on now that is related tangentially. It’s called TheBestListEver. The goal is to collect all of the best stuff people would recommend in one place. The idea derives from a great idea for a library that was started at Sudbury Valley School. They simply had people bring in the books they loved and that formed the library. It didn’t matter if everyone thought it was a great book as long as you did, but you couldn’t add a book because you thought it would be good for someone else to read, you had to personally love it yourself.

TheBestListEver is designed to expand this idea to everything. Movies, books, video games, hikes, recipes, beer, brands, vacation spots, etc. etc. etc.

My hope is that it can also serve as a way for people to discover new things based on interest through a very personal lens. So if you’re interested in being a designer you can find designers you respect on TheBestListEver and see what inspires them, what books they love, what movies get their creative juices going, etc. This in turn may provide a valuable path for a budding designer to go down.

One of the primary goals of The Puzzle School will be to inspire students toward projects of their own choosing. Hopefully TheBestListEver will become a resource in this effort.

So, if you have a book, movie, etc. that you love, please add it to the site. You can add things anonymously, but they carry more weight and become more interesting if there is a profile with your face behind it. All I ask is that you add things honestly. Don’t focus on inspiring students, just add anything that you truly love/appreciate/respect.

You can find mine here: Jared Cosulich – TheBestListEver

Now back to the longer term goal of making The Puzzle School a reality. I’ve tried a great deal to back off of this idea, but it continues to haunt me and, increasingly, it just makes sense from a number of different perspectives.

It haunts me because the framing of a “puzzle” reflects a fundamentally human approach to learning, research, creating, etc. I’ll explain further, but first let me define what I mean when I say a “puzzle”:

An activity that has a specific goal which is neither too easy nor too hard and exists within an environment that provides feedback loops such that you can test hypothesis, receive feedback, and iterate toward the goal in a non-linear manner.

I know it’s a dense statement, but it has served me well as I’ve thought through much of this. Here’s an attempt to unpack it a bit:

A Specific Goal

The idea here is that students would engage in projects of their choosing where there is a specific goal (building a video game, recording a video, writing a blog post, etc). This goal would allow students and teachers to talk about the progress the student is making toward the goal and about the feedback loops they are using to determine how much progress they are making.

Neither Too Easy Nor Too Hard

I’m not very concerned about this aspect as most people won’t choose an activity that is too easy on their own (as it is boring), but they may choose one that is too hard (e.g. many students would love to build a video game but don’t realize how hard it is to do and may give up too easily if they have that expectation in mind). So the primary objective here is likely going to revolve around helping students break down complex goals in to smaller goals such that progress will be more tangible.

An Environment That Provides Feedback Loops

This is really the core concept. Everything humans do revolves around the idea of taking an action, evaluating new information (feedback) that comes in as a result of that action, and then responding to it with further action. We repeat this over and over throughout our day. If I’m walking I’m constantly looking at the ground for reflections of light that tell me where my next step should be and I’m using my feet to look for feedback that the ground is where I expect it to be. If I’m talking to you I might try to analyze your facial expression to see if you are understanding what I am saying and might adjust what I say based on that feedback.

I think this is one of the most fundamental processes we go through and I think it is fundamental to learning, discovery, research, and creating. In order to form a complete understanding of something you need to be able to play with it and ensure that your expectations/predictions about how it will respond if you do something are accurate. If I am programming a computer I will write code and then check to see if that code is doing what I expect it to. If I am writing then I may write a passage and then go back and re-read it (or have someone else read it) to see if it sounds right.

This is the core exercise at The Puzzle School. How do you find the feedback loops that will help you determine if you are headed in the right direction (toward your goal). This feedback may be objective (the software is working) or it may be subjective (an expert thought that the essay was high quality). Ideally the feedback will be immediate and honest (e.g. a product being used by someone who needs it vs. an expert predicting whether it will be used or not), but that is not always possible, so there will be a continuous effort to brainstorm and find better feedback loops.

Test Hypothesis, Receive Feedback, And Iterate Toward The Goal

In many educational environments the primary feedback loop is a grade, but often that grade is final. In The Puzzle School the goal will be to help students figure out how best to receive feedback as frequently and honestly as possible so that they can iterate on that feedback toward the goal. The process is the objective. Even if they don’t succeed in achieving their goal, they will be learning about how to achieve goals, how to handle feedback and iterate on an idea rather than just giving up on it. Sometimes ideas require a slight change of direction, but sometimes it will be appropriate to give up on an idea. Learning how to tell the difference is enormously valuable (and very difficult / impossible).

A Non-Linear Manner

This will be an important aspect for students, parents, teachers, and governments to embrace. Individual learning and development does not happen in a clean, linear manner. It is messy, goes in fits and starts, and is difficult to predict. A student who learns to read at a late age may become a voracious reader soon after. Or maybe they won’t. It’s not easy or often possible to predict. This makes education so challenging, but it’s enormously important that students understand that their initial success at something does not accurately predict how successful they will be after much more effort. The only thing we can predict is that effort will lead to improvement. It may not make them the best, but they will improve.


At A High Level

Another way of looking at the fundamental nature of the “puzzle” framing is to say that almost any activity we do at a high level can “feel like solving a puzzle”. When I code it can feel like I am solving a puzzle. When I write it can feel like I’m solving a puzzle. When I cook, manage employees, develop a new product, parent, etc. etc. etc., it can feel like I’m solving a puzzle. What I mean by this is that I have a goal in mind and I’m not entirely sure how to get there, but I have a number of tools at my disposal and I have some feedback loops that help me know whether I’m on the right path. Not every action I take will move me in the right direction, but hopefully the feedback loops will inform me quickly enough that I can change direction.

This is the essence of the Puzzle School. It doesn’t mean explicit instruction isn’t welcome. That’s a valid path toward a goal. But even explicit instruction doesn’t provide a linear path toward understanding (even though we may want it to).

There are  more nuances to this approach and how it affects the day-to-day life of students, but hopefully this provides a good starting point toward what I am trying to accomplish.