Theories and Teachers Notes For Our Puzzle Challenge Days

At the end of a Puzzle Challenge Day programme, students are asked what they feel they have learned that will help them in the future. We stress to the students that we don't want to hear that they managed to construct a giant marble run, or build a road system for a town, we want to know what they will take away for the future and apply to their lives both in and out of the classroom.

Almost always, across both the primary and secondary age spectrum, we hear the same three responses:

"Never give up!"

"Nothing needs to be impossible!"

"You can achieve a huge amount by working as a team."

That's powerful stuff, and over the last 24 years we have seen over a million students take away that message in order to put it into action across the curriculum and in their social lives too.

The puzzles solved and the methodology used in a Puzzle Challenge Day programme will help your students to improve their mathematical skills, their thinking and logical reasoning skills and their team skills. Above all, it will help to improve their self-confidence so they begin to raise their own expectations of what they can achieve.

The Theory Of The Line Of Achievement

The psychology that lies behind a Puzzle Challenge Day programme is based on The Theory Of The Line Of Achievement, based on the work of the programme's founder, psychologist of education Gavin Ucko.

This theory suggests that each student's abilities can be plotted onto a horizontal line. This line represents 'difficulty'.

At one end of the line of the things which each student finds to be incredibly easy, and at the other end of the line are things which really are impossible.

The theory suggests that for most students (but not all) there are two points on the line on which we need to focus.

The first point is called the 'Perceived Threshold'. This is the point in terms of difficulty which each student thinks they are able to reach. In other words they think they can do everything up to that point in terms of difficulty, but they don't think they can go beyond it. It's a point which is defined by psychological and social perceptions, confidence and self-belief.

A little further up the line, towards increasing difficulty, lies the second point, known as the 'Actual Threshold'. This is a representation of what the student can actually achieve and is a true reflection of their ability.

The theory suggests that for most students, there is a gap between what the student believesthey can do and what they can actually do. The aim of the Puzzle Challenge Day programme is to close that gap, so that the student starts to increase their own expectation of what they can achieve, building their own self-belief in the process.

So why does that gap exist for most students? The answer is actually quite simple. Often students will err on the side of caution. It's easier to tell yourself that you can't do something than to challenge yourself and run the risk of failure and with that, the risk of embarrassment. The puzzle challenge Day programme will demonstrate to the students that by manipulating information and by looking at the stimuli in front of them from different perspectives, they can actually go on and solve problems which they initially perceived as having been beyond their capabilities.

Many of our programmes feature optical illusions. The purpose of these is to demonstrate to students how easy it is for them to actually convince themselves that the impossible can become possible, and how easily their brains are tricked into believing something is there, when it isn't!

Why grown ups often think they can't do puzzles without even trying them!

Working with adults and children with our puzzles provides two contrasting experiences.

Children want to dive in! Ideally they would like to try and solve all the puzzles simultaneously. Our challenge is to make sure they make that they remain focused on the task in hand.

As adults we often have a very different experience with puzzles. Often, we shy away from them. By attempting to solve a puzzle we run the risk of being beaten by a small, inanimate, plastic object. In fact, a whole generation of adults have had their confidence in puzzles knocked for one reason ... and that's Rubik's cube.

At the end of the 1970s when Professor Rubik first launched his ingenious creation, it was billed at that time as being pretty much the ultimate measure of how good you were at puzzles. If you could solve a Rubik's Cube you could solve almost anything. Yet the vast majority of people never managed to come anywhere close to solving the Rubik's Cube. Somehow though, we all seemed to know somebody who could solve Rubik's Cube from any position in less than one minute, blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs!

So they bought out a book that taught us how to solve Rubik's Cube. And most of us couldn't follow that either. What that did, was to damage the confidence of an entire generation in solving puzzles.

None of the puzzles used in a Puzzle Challenge Day programme are anything like Rubik's Cube. In fact, they are all very solvable within a few minutes. It's all about what you do with the information that is sitting in front of you.

As teachers watching the programme, you have a unique opportunity to take a step back, watch your students in action, and start to understand how they think and learn. Allow yourself to climb inside the minds of your students and watch them discover strategies that will help them overcome every day difficulties in their schoolwork and social lives.

Why the students you would least expect to thrive in the programme turn out to be the strongest puzzlers and team players

One of the most common pieces of feedback which we receive from teachers, is how surprised they are by which students appear to be the most successful with these puzzles and challenges. There are several interesting reasons for this.

In the first instance, achievements and ability in the classroom is not necessarily correlated with an ability to work as part of a team.

Sometimes you might discover that the 'brightest' student in the class can't work as part of a team. Similarly, students who struggle in the classroom may well turn out to be exceptional team players and natural leaders.

Take certain students out of a natural classroom environment and you'll be surprised by the extent of the changes you may see in your students.

However, perhaps the most surprising aspect here is the way in which children with specific learning difficulties is supportive but playing with these puzzles and challenges start to flourish with the challenges in a Puzzle Challenge Day programme.

Why might this be the case?

When a student with a specific learning difficulty reaches a certain age, they will start to become aware that there is 'something' which is holding them back in the classroom often it's easier to shy away from a task which carries a perceived threat, rather than facing it head-on. With the Puzzle Challenge Day programme, we are taking these students out of the classroom and giving them what they see as being fun puzzles and games. They doesn't carry the same perceived risk, so the psychological barriers that impeded performance in the classroom start to come down and these students start to perform in ways that you would not normally see in the classroom setting. Often that can be a simple question of confidence. But it's also extremely powerful.

It's not a competition! Yes it is! No it isn't!

As programme providers we sometimes feel that we could tell students a thousand times that the teams are not in competition with one another, but will they listen? Of course not! Somehow, what the neighbouring team is doing seems equally important to the task in hand for their own team.

It's actually not a bad thing. Having an awareness of what's going on around you is in itself a valuable life skill. Cheering when you complete a task is a sign of achievement. However, we stress to the students that one team has to finish first. The emphasis is always on completing, rather than competing.

Why do some programmes have different puzzles to others?

Within the first few minutes of a programme, the task of the facilitator is to work out the best direction in which to take the programme for your students.

Almost all programmes will feature the penguin challenge near the beginning. In trying to find a way to get all of the penguins to balance at the same time on top of a moving iceberg, your students are gently pushed into a position in which they have to communicate in a certain way, and then begin the process of strategic planning.

This gives the facilitator an opportunity to take a step back and look at the dynamics in the room. What are the strengths and weakness of the group? How are their listening skills? Are their team skills effective? What about their ability to think independently and share ideas? Having answered these questions, the facilitator will decide on the best puzzles and challenges for your students, looking for the ones which will best improve your students' skills.

Often, a pattern will emerge during a day in which the facilitator sees that the strengths and weaknesses of the students are repeated across the year groups. For that reason, they may decide to use the same equipment in each session. Please feel free to ask your facilitator for more detail about why they have chosen the activities being used.

It's all about a range of skills!

Finally, let's go back to where we started. What are we trying to achieve?

We said that in a typical programme we want the students to tell us that they have learned never to give up, that nothing needs to be impossible and that effective teamwork is vital.

En route to achieving this, we will cover many different types of thinking skills. From brainstorming to strategic planning, and from visual perception and spatial awareness to lateral thinking and logical reasoning, what your students will achieve during the programme will change the way they think and learn. As an added bonus, they will have a huge amount of fun along the way!