Yesterday, we worked on a puzzle/game called Cartesian Chase. I played a few games against students to demonstrate the rules (we confined ourselves to a 3x7 rectangle) and then just let them play for while. Then, I had them stop and record anything they were noticing in terms of a strategy that seemed to be working. Then, they switched and played with new partners for a while longer. I stopped them again after a few games and had them record updated strategies. We ended with a class a few "undefeated" people playing each other. It quickly became apparent that there was a winning strategy at play.
In the process of all this, here is what I noticed:
- nearly ALL of the students were engaged and playing for the whole time
- students were having fun with each other
- we had a few early conjectures in place about what strategy might be best
- students uncovered structure in the problem, used it to win every time, & were able to clearly explain it
- after the game was "solved," a few students were curious: "what if we added another column?" and "what happens with other board sizes?"
I work hard to bring this same spirit of playfulness to other lessons. I work hard to make every day feel like a puzzle in our class. For some reason, I can never quite bridge that gap in the way I would like. I think I get pretty close most days, but for some reason "how many burger combinations are possible?" still feels more like a math problem and less like a puzzle to students. Maybe it has to do with our intent as teachers? Do we place too much emphasis on students "knowing" something specific by the end of the lesson? Could we set up the task better (slower?) so that it emerges as a puzzle? I have a lot of questions, but I do know that I value what students are learning about themselves as mathematicians and thinkers from a lesson just as much, if not more than, I value students knowing some piece of the thing we call "mathematics."