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Ten Ways to Use Puzzles in Math Education
Scott Kim, April 22, 2002

Puzzles are a great way to make math fun. After all, a puzzle is nothing but a problem that is fun to solve.

Chances are that you already use puzzles in your classroom. Primary level teachers commonly use puzzle manipulatives like tangrams to teach concepts like shapes, fractions and area. Secondary and high school teachers often use puzzles to introduce concepts and spice up homework. College entrance exams and math competitions are mainly collections of puzzles as well.

As a professional puzzle designer and math educator, I would like to see puzzles (and games) used more widely at all levels of math education. Here are ten ways you can use puzzles in your math classrooms, with links to web resources. Most of the resources mentioned work with upper elementary through high school levels.

1. Classroom Resource
Display a collection of physical puzzles that students can play with before class and as a reward when they have finished their work. Physical puzzles are especially good for tactile learners, who often can't absorb traditional educational methods. 

Some of the best classroom puzzles include Rush Hour®, Hoppers®, and Lunar Lockout™ from ThinkFun (http://www.thinkfun.com/) each of which include a graded series of 40 puzzles.

The Problem of the Week book and posters from Dale Seymour Publications (http://www.pearsonlearning.com/) is a colorful collection of entertaining puzzles that you can hang on your wall.

2. Arts & Crafts
Having students build puzzles themselves both saves money and involves them in a creative crafts activity. 

Exploring Math Through Puzzles
, by Wei Zhang (http://www.keypress.com/), includes pieces for building 54 take-it-apart puzzles involving wire, string and beads, plus notes on problem-solving techniques.

Creative Puzzles of the World, by Pieter Van Delft and Jack Botermans (http://www.keypress.com/) explores the multicultural artistic and historical side of puzzles, with extensive instructions for making the puzzles.

3. Introduce Ideas
Martin Gardner, author of The Colossal Book of Mathematics (Norton) and dozens of other classics in recreational mathematics, recently wrote in Scientific American that puzzles are a great way to get students excited about learning new ideas. 

A good collection of warm-up exercises for high school math topics is Thought Provokers, by Doug Rohrer (http://www.keypress.com/).

I write a monthly puzzle column called Bogglers in the popular science magazine Discover. Many of the puzzles teach concepts from contemporary math and science. Recent topics include Fermat's Last Theorem, cryptography and topology (http://www.scottkim.com/discover).

4. Illustrate Strategies
Books on creative thinking (often written for adults) use puzzles to illustrate thinking strategies, and the ways that we can get stuck in mental ruts. 

Lateral Thinking proponent Edward De Bono's books include De Bono's Thinking Course (Checkmark) and Six Thinking Hats (Little Brown). Also see (http://www.edwdebono.com/).

5. Physical Manipulatives
Physical manipulatives like pattern blocks and tangrams make abstract ideas tangible, and encourage open-ended exploration. Manipulatives are most common in elementary schools, but can work at all levels.

6. Livelier Homework
English teachers often spice up their vocabulary exercises by working words into crossword puzzles. To learn more about software for creating crossword and word search puzzles for the classroom, see (http://www.cogix.com/cw/CW20.htm).

7. Public Events
For elementary grades, family math (http://www.lhs.berkeley.edu/EQUALS/) uses math puzzles and activities to create a carnival-like event for both students and parents to enjoy.

For secondary and high school math clubs and competitions there are many books of contest puzzles, such as 50 Mathematical Puzzles and Problems, edited by Gilles Cohen (http://www.keypress.com/).

8. Skill Testing
College entrance exams like the SAT use puzzles to evaluate mental skills. The best way to prepare for such tests is to work through books of puzzles. MENSA (http://www.mensa.org/) publishes many excellent books of puzzles.

9. Problem Posing
As teachers, we all know that the best way to learn something is to teach it. One teacher told me that he challenges students to invent questions that will appear on the exams. The questions from students are frequently quite hard, and involve students more deeply in their own learning.

JuniorNet (http://www.juniornet.com/) is a subscription-only online service for kids with content from Highlights, Weekly Reader, and other major publications. My area on JuniorNet, called Scott Kim's Puzzle Box, lets kids build and share their own puzzles with each other.

10. Original Research
Rebecca Wahl at Butler University has found that puzzles are an effective way to get undergraduate students to do original mathematical research. Unlike advanced mathematical topics, most puzzles require no special background, yet are rich with unsolved challenging problems.

  Learn more about Scott Kim
Last Updated: June 5, 2007 top
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