My dad is a maths teacher. I remember how, when I was little, I loved the time we spent poring over puzzles together. And I enjoy puzzles now (logic puzzles and working with others to solve puzzles – they’re what I like best).
When I followed dad into teaching, we started a before-school puzzle club together. Then, when I moved to Cramlington Learning Village as an NQT three years ago, it was one of the things I felt I should introduce here. I’d already brought puzzles to my classes as a treat for good behaviour, or at the end of the week, or in the summer term. But I talked to my head of department about running an after-school puzzle club.
This is a very forward-thinking school and there are already more than 20 after-school activities: loads of sport, a very popular science club, book clubs, a radio station, all sorts. The school changed this year from a high school (years 9, 10, 11 and sixth form) to a secondary school (including years 7 and 8) and there are around 2 400 students. It is very much a comprehensive school so there are students from all backgrounds and abilities. It is important to us here to get as many children involved in activities outside the regular timetable as possible because we believe it helps with social development.
When I suggested the Puzzle Club, then, I received a very positive response. The head of department had run a similar project himself at another school, and had heard of the success of other initiatives elsewhere.
We quickly secured a budget and invited a number of pupils to join us in visiting a local puzzle shop. We took a suitcase and filled it with all the puzzles the pupils said they wanted to try.
We found that around 40 puzzles was a good starting point, and think we need to add around 10 more every six months or so. This means a fairly substantial budget is needed but it is important that there are enough puzzles for everyone in the club, plus spares. We don’t want the children to have to wait and there should be enough variety for everyone to find one of interest.
The puzzles the pupils selected were very visual but based on quite simple ideas.
These included foam based jigsaws, Tactiles, Rubik's cubes, Bedlam Cubes, Impuzzables (which are smaller and easier cube puzzles), some challenging jigsaw type puzzles, and wire based puzzles where you have to twist to manoeuvre a ball around. The three dimensional puzzles were the most popular.
Before we opened the club up to the school, I asked a few students to try each of the puzzles and giving me their comments. Between us we gave each puzzle a level between 1 and 10 for difficulty. The Bedlam Cube is the only puzzle which is level 10.
Now, when the students come to the club, they are given a checklist with all the puzzles and their levels of difficulty. I encourage them to start on a lower level puzzle and work their way up, but it’s important that they choose which puzzle they want to try.
The club runs every Thursday after school for an hour and is open to everyone. It didn’t take a lot to convince the children to come along; they were intrigued.
Initially we thought the top set would be the ones who would come along but actually it is the children from the lower sets. Quite a few children who come to the club have statements and special educational needs. We are finding that they interact more in the club than they would in class. It is a valuable way for them to learn problem solving, spatial awareness and teamwork. There are about 25 who come along regularly, and they are from years 7 and 8.
Last year I visited a middle school and ran a puzzle workshop to give them an idea of what the club would be like. This went really well. I sent an email to our feeder primary schools to inform them of the club and a few of them asked if they could be involved. Since September, three middle schools have each been sending 15 pupils from their year 6 to Cramlington on rotation. They come with two members of staff and I pair up students so that a high school pupil can help the year 6 student. They show them what to do, how to choose a suitable puzzle and give suggestions for solving the puzzle.
Students are keen to be the first to finish a particular puzzle. The Bedlam Cube is very popular and has been solved by a few students even though it is supposed to be extremely difficult.
Students sometimes bring in their puzzles from home for us to try out and I have recently introduced a puzzle which is displayed on the board in the classroom. I find these puzzles through various puzzle websites. Sometimes I send it to the students via the VLE system for them to have a look at before the session, and then we discuss the solutions together.
Each time the student completes a puzzle they have their checklist signed off and there are prizes for completing 10, 20 and 30 puzzles.
For children with a low ability in maths, who hate the subject in lessons, the club has introduced them to an element that they enjoy and that they are choosing to do. It gives them confidence and engagement with maths. I hope they’ll have the same happy memories, and lifelong enjoyment of puzzles that I’ve had!