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There’s a new approach to learning, designed to improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Much has been written about the skills learners need to equip them to cope with the demands of society and life once they leave school. And there are certain skills that regularly appear on most educators’ lists: Complex problem-solving; critical thinking; creativity and imagination; collaboration and teamwork; and cognitive flexibility and adaptability.

The International Baccalaureate, an examination written in many European countries and across the world, expects students to have been conditioned through their education to become enquirers, thinkers, open-minded, risk-takers and reflective among others.

This demands new ways to expose children to and hone some of the skills mentioned above. And, this is exactly what the teaching staff at St Martin’s Preparatory School in Johannesburg have done with the introduction to the curriculum of puzzle challenges to both teachers and pupils.

Puzzle period

In 2018, it became apparent that the school’s newly-appointed executive headmaster enjoyed visiting various classes, particularly the mathematics classes and it was not unusual to have him suddenly appear and present the pupils with a quick puzzle or challenge to work through.

These unexpected visits unnerved some, energised others and got some parents and pupils thinking. Perhaps it was the perplexed look on the children’s faces that led him to suggest the introduction of a puzzle period into the timetable. It was decided that Grade 4s would be exposed to various English puzzles, Grade 5s would play chess,Grade 6s would do number puzzles and Grade 7s coding.

Every Wednesday, the Grade 4s tackle crosswords, crack codes, solve riddles, find words and try to decipher rebus puzzles. This helps to build vocabulary, improve spelling, expand general knowledge and develop comprehension skills while having fun.

In Grade 5, playing chess assists with developing problem-solving skills and abstract reasoning using “if and then” scenarios. It also teaches calmness under pressure, patience, creative thinking, pattern recognition and strategic planning. Most importantly, it teaches pupils how to execute a strategy. All of these skills are essential for success in mathematics.

The Grade 6 pupils tackle number puzzles including strategy games, puzzles and non-routine problem-solving in mathematics, which develop skills such as numeric agility, complex problem-solving and persistence.

Pupils in Grade 7 learn how to use basic computer programmes using Sketch. Coding enables pupils to gain logic and critical thinking skills. They learn what it’s like to approach a problem the way a software engineer does, with logical, computational thinking.

Teachers learn too

The school’s teaching staff are open to change and growth, so are developing the same skills as their pupils as they present these lessons. The teachers all believe in “never limiting the children you teach to your own knowledge”.

Grade 6 teacher Nicole Bell says that this phrase turned a senior primary English teacher’s fear of maths puzzles into a challenge that, initially, she was terrified to undertake. The concepts and way of thinking were so far removed from her specialised subject that she questioned whether she would have the ability to teach the number puzzles. “For many teachers, our confidence lies in what we know, and we believe that it is our responsibility to transmit that very knowledge to the children in our care. However, what happens when you have to impart something to them that you have not even dipped your toe into? The answer, I found after battling with these puzzles in preparation for the lessons, was to not always seem like I had it all together. To question, to doubt, to struggle and to simply have no idea – is this not part of being human?

“I realised that while teaching the pupils tenacity, perseverance and diligence through these lessons, I would be doing them an injustice if I did not share my own vulnerabilities with them. This meant that in every puzzle lesson, I would attempt the activity the children were completing. I would share my victories with them, ask for guidance from those who got it, and share my frustrations when I could not find an answer. This meant that we got to celebrate as a whole when a solution was found.

“To teach ‘thinking’ is a difficult concept, but with this new approach to problem-solving, children are encouraged to think for themselves and pursue success at their own speed while learning through the entire process,” she says.

Incorporating the puzzle period into the timetable ensures that all pupils are exposed to the challenges the lessons bring.

“This has been a great way to bring play into the intermediate phase classrooms. At a recent IEB meeting, we were reminded about the importance of using games in our classrooms. We are regularly told that generation Z and Alpha pupils learn differently; this is probably why our pupils have become fully engaged in the puzzle lessons,” says Michelle Myburgh, deputy head. ”Although still in the early stages of development, it can be said with confidence that both pupils and teachers alike have grown during these lessons and I look forward to seeing how it continues to elevate their thinking through the rest of the year. The comments from our pupils are a true indication that they are beginning to think about their thinking. Metacognition in action, how wonderful!” says Myburgh.