Puzzles in math education

Scott Kim, the author of the excellent Inversions, is launching a crusade to bring more puzzles to math education. He gave a talk on this subject at the Gathering 4 Gardner. (See the slides.) Martin Gardner, of course, is the author of the long-running Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. He inspired who knows how many zillions of people to become math teachers. I’ve attended many math conferences over the years — without question, by far the longest line I’ve seen at a math conference was to get books signed by Martin Gardner.

As readers of this blog and users of my Web site may know, bringing puzzles into math education has been a good part of my life’s work. One way I’ve done this is literally, bringing topics from recreational math directly into the classroom and building lessons around them. For example, I have brought pentominoes into more classrooms than anyone, with a book of Pentomino Activities, Lessons, and Puzzles, and a separate box and cards of pentomino puzzles in print continuously since 1984. A new version of the book is coming soon from Didax. At least, I hope it’s soon because it is going out of print at McGraw-Hill. (A few copies are left here!) See the geometric puzzles page on my site for more along those lines. My Geometry Labs book (free download!) is infused with puzzles and a puzzle mindset throughout.

But also, my approach to teaching math in general has been puzzle-informed. I’ve developed much curriculum with a puzzler’s ethic. My algebra book Algebra: Themes, Tools, Concepts came under phenomenal attack precisely because of that approach. (For one example, the critic felt that the McNuggets problem should be reserved for graduate school!)

Or see this example of my approach to the use of technology. Not the mind-numbing “graph this, graph that, what do you notice?”, but “what functions would yield this interesting design?” Or the construction unit I teach in my geometry classes. More examples can be found throughout my Web site.

Bottom line: the kind of energy the right puzzle brings into the classroom is phenomenal, with all types of kids. To get teachers to buy into this, the challenge is making the connection between puzzles and the core curriculum, rather than promote puzzles as something that just happens on the side. I have done my bit in this direction, and I wish Scott much success with his campaign.


1 thought on “Puzzles in math education”

  1. Interesting perspective on using puzzles as part of the core curriculum. I think that this has approach has a lot of merit. I think the most important thing with mathematics education is to engage the students. Giving them puzzles to solve as part of the maturation process challenges them and causes them to think. Keep up the good work and I will definitely be checking out some of the resources you highlighted in this post.


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