The Puzzle School (The Name)

Posted on July 30, 2016


This is part of an ongoing exploratory series on Educational Ideas

School names are interesting. For the most part they are just names. The vast majority have little meaning other than referring to the local area where they are located or as a tribute to an important individual from the past (e.g. Martin Luther King).

Rarely do school names have educational meaning. I think this may be a lost opportunity, although it also feels quite controversial. There are very few institutions that people engage with like they engage with a school. The amount of time you spend in a school and the connection you make to the people you meet there can often lead to that school becoming a part of your identity.

This is primarily what intrigues me about calling a school “The Puzzle School”.

I know it is likely going to cause some controversy. It feels reductive, as if it is distilling all of education down to a puzzle. Most people immediately associate puzzles with jigsaw puzzles, which are simple and have one right answer. Other people simply don’t feel connected to “puzzles” as something they enjoy or appreciate.

They will feel nervous about sending their child to The Puzzle School; nervous that their child’s experience there will be too one-dimensional.

Despite these concerns I can’t let go of the idea.

I don’t think the metaphor is particularly reductive, although I appreciate that it is a little. The process of solving a puzzle is often equated with the learning and creative process. Everyone from a scientist to a detective to an artist to an entrepreneur may describe their work at times like “solving a puzzle” because they go through a process of observation, ideation, testing, feedback, and iteration while they try to achieve a cohesive whole. That whole may be a painting or an app. Either way it needs to feel cohesive and you get there through a great deal of iteration. This is generally what someone means when they say they are trying to “puzzle something out”. Even the simple jigsaw puzzle follows this pattern, asking you to test out each piece that you think is a good fit and providing immediate feedback as to whether the piece actually fits or not.

Within education the puzzle metaphor implies a number of things. At the highest level it implies that we should seek out “fit” for the experiences of each student. Instead of basing a school around a specific technique, we employ a number of techniques and seek feedback from students. If something isn’t working then we look for ways to change it or try something else.

Being flexible and responsive to student needs may be difficult, but it is not impossible, and a community that is aligned around that goal has a good chance of achieving it. Even if a school is not perfectly flexible and responsive, every step in that direction would be beneficial.

Furthermore, As a student attending The Puzzle School I may begin to identify as someone who was capable of solving complex problems through a process of observation, ideation, testing, feedback, and iteration. I might look at my learning and my life through this lens. Instead of thinking I was “bad” at something, I might begin to think I can improve if I develop and test ideas for how I can make progress.

In the end there it seems there is little real downside to having a name that has educational meaning, but maybe I’m wrong. It may make some people nervous if they don’t feel like the name is the best fit for them, but it is unlikely that any student would truly become one-dimensional just because of a name, especially if the name is really just a metaphor for the learning and creative process we all go through. The worst case scenario is that a student does not connect with the name and ignores it, while the best case scenario is that the name helps them identify as someone who is capable of solving complex problems, someone who is capable of navigating through life by taking small steps and testing their assumptions, never giving up because they always have another idea with regard to how to make progress.

Even if that identity plays a small role in who they are and who they become, it still feels valuable.


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