Puzzle Day
Barbara Shea, Lower School Principal 

What child doesn’t love a puzzle! The real test is simply finding the right puzzle so that it captures and holds the child’s interest until the solution can be unraveled. On Friday, September 22, the three divisions held a “Puzzle Day” in which students were given a variety of puzzles, riddles, and brain teasers. The goal in the Lower School was to engage students in thought-provoking, yet achievable, problem-solving. It was meant to spark enthusiasm, interest, and fun, but also to build skills, such as perseverance and flexibility.

In the Pre-K classroom, the teachers arranged a variety of jigsaw puzzles on a table. The students’ charge was to go around the table putting the various puzzle pieces together. On an individual basis, these four year olds quickly learned from watching one another and developed their own approach. Just seeing the pieces that they chose gave insight to their thinking. The last activity included one large floor-puzzle that encouraged students to work together. As the puzzle design became more apparent, the conversations became more animated and the excitement grew exponentially!

Kindergarten students in one class chose to do a variety of floor puzzles. The challenge for them was to work cooperatively and come up with the communication skills and strategies to facilitate the process. Encouraging one another, shifting gears, recognizing similar pieces, and sharing their individual ideas were the process skills; the completed puzzle was the by-product. 

Across the first grade, each student was asked to draw a picture of his or her favorite part of a reading book onto an individual jigsaw puzzle. The students then traded their puzzles. Armed with a plastic bag filled with puzzle pieces, the students were very excited to share their works with one another and to complete the various puzzles.

In the second grade, each class took a different approach. In one class, each student was given a large puzzle piece and asked to assemble the pieces to form a portrait of a famous figure. There were sketched lines on one side and numbers on the other – two clues in revealing the face. The students had to decide on the meaning of the clues, to develop a strategy, and then to communicate to each other as a team. I was impressed that the students immediately recognized the reveal to be Albert Einstein! Some of the required skills included taking turns, offering positive feedback, listening to the clues offered by their classmates, visualizing the missing pieces, and practicing patience! In the other second grade class, the students each decorated a piece of a puzzle that, when combined, reflected their class community. Thrown into the mix of the day was a riddle about children trying to build a snowman. Once the snowman’s body was in place, the children rolled a snowball for the head so big they couldn’t lift it onto the snowman’s body. How did they manage to get the snowman’s head in place? (The clue was that you needed more snow to solve the problem, not less.) For the first time, a second grader solved the riddle with aplomb!

A great deal of the computer curriculum focuses on design, so in this class it was the students who were creating the puzzles for one another. Before school that day, a group of second and fourth graders developed a program in SCRATCH that simulated a robot going through a maze. Later, the students created a grid on poster board that represented the simulated maze. With a “bee bot,” (a bee-shaped robot that can be programmed by children), the third graders then tested the program by having the actual “bee bot” navigate the physical maze.

Fourth graders had a day of puzzles across the curriculum! With language-based brain teasers, mazes, multiplication puzzles, and magic squares, students had to develop a variety of strategies to solve them all. Some of the logic puzzles required a systematic approach: drawing a picture, filling out a spreadsheet to include all the given information, or developing an orderly trial and error approach. The most interesting puzzles involved shapes made from toothpicks with the directive to remove only one toothpick to create a new form. Perspective-taking plays a role in these problem-solving activities. Some of us have a harder time seeing the bigger picture, and we’re better at focusing on the details; for others it is the reverse. Whatever the problem, the key is to use our curiosity to develop tools that keep us moving forward, ever closer to the solution. In each of these activities the students were animated and committed to solving the problems; some enjoyed working cooperatively, while others wanted the experience/pleasure of doing it themselves! 

Throughout the year, fourth-grade teachers spend a great deal of time talking about a growth mindset, which feeds directly into empowering students in problem-solving. As part of the fourth-grade curriculum, a day is set aside every other rotation to do a variety of brain teasers with an attitude that you can become smarter with practice. As Carol Dweck describes it, "In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it."* With a growth mindset, students are willing to take risks, persevering with the knowledge that they will grow from the experience. At all levels, the teachers’ goal is to encourage students to challenge themselves by taking those risks and reflect on that learning.

Mrs. Simpson had a vast assortment of brain teasers and puzzles for students in grades 1-4 and incorporated Responsive Classroom tenets into the activities. Students were asked to solve the puzzles, while demonstrating C.A.R.E.S. – Cooperation: working with one another, Assertion:  asking for help from friends/teacher, Responsibility: making sure that the pieces were kept together so they could be used again, Empathy: understanding when the problem is difficult and reaching out to help others, and Self-Control: ensuring that the puzzles were used appropriately. I spoke with one of the fourth-grade classes, and the students commented on the fact that some puzzles were much harder than others, and they struggled with finding the solutions. However, when asked how they enjoyed the activities, they all exclaimed that they loved them, and would love to have Puzzle Day”again!
*Stanford University’s Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education, OneDublin.org 2012-06-19