Mechanical Puzzles - Valuable Educational Resources


by Andy Liu, October 2002

Home / Puzzles in Education / Teachers' Stories /

Education, especially public education, is always in one crisis or another. I often hear my university colleagues complain about the low quality of the high school graduates. I am sure that the same sort of conversations must occur in the teachers' rooms of high schools, complaining about what the junior high schools turn over to them. Where does the buck stop?

Are kids more stupid than before? There is no reason to believe so. Each generation produces its geniuses as well as those in the lower echelons. Part of the problem lies in the lack of good work ethics. In trying to deal with education as an administrative problem, our politicians are forever trying to convince people that learning should be easy. They either think that it is the job of the teaching profession to make it so, or entrust the task to technology in blind faith.

This is utter nonsense! Learning had never been easy, will never be easy, and should not be easy. It does not mean that we should make it harder than it already is, but without effort, there is no learning. Thirty years ago, it was said that the television would solve all our education problems. Today, it is often said that the internet will solve all our education problems. I sincerely hope it will take much less than thirty years to see the folly of this line of thought.

Learning is often portrayed as an obstacle to our God-given right of success in life, instead of an opportunity to improve our chances for success in life. Viewed as an obstacle, it is natural to try to resist having to learn. Unfortunately, life would then become one obstacle after another, each worse than the one before. Viewed as an opportunity, one will embrace learning. Then life would become one opportunity after another, each more promising than the one before.

Some aspects of learning can be boring. This is to be expected and accepted. After all, the primary role of the teacher is not to entertain, though again one should not make the boring bits even more so than is necessary. A gifted teacher would make full use of the personal contact with the students to guide the students over the rough spots, with patience, warm and humor.

Children are naturally curious. They are fascinated by things that bewilder them. When an older student experiences learning difficulty, often the root of the problem is the loss of this natural curiosity. Thus it is essential for every teacher to ensure that this does not happen. Whether it does so or not is often the ultimate endorsement of success in teaching, or the indictment of failure in doing so.

I often show children the following puzzle of Nob Yoshigahara, the famed metagrobologist. It consists of seven rectangular blocks packed into a box. After the blocks were dumped out, I asked the children to put them back in. At first, they thought that I was insulting their intelligence. Then they discovered to their amazement that six blocks fitted snuggly inside the box. There just was no room for the seventh block!

Mechanical puzzles appeal directly to one's senses and can arouse the interest of people, especially children. Once they are intrigued, they want to get to the bottom of it. This is the true spirit of learning, the search for truth and beauty, along with a sense of play. Good mechanical puzzles, apart from their diabolical design, have many aesthetic qualities.

In what follows, I will outline a number of ways that I, as an educator in the tertiary level, employ mechanical puzzles for the education of school children, especially those at the elementary school level. I do not try to justify each specific mechanic puzzle. To me, this is totally unnecessary. Meaningful play promotes learning. However, I will try to highlight the pedagogical advantages of some of the puzzles.


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