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Japanilaiset ristikot laboratory: teaching mathematics in Finland with Japanese puzzles

Monday, March 2, 2009 Japanilaiset ristikot laboratory: highlights of teaching mathematics with online logic puzzles

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Schools in Finland have a national part of the curriculum which covers most of the studies all students must have in order to graduate high school. Yet, there are also optional studies In Finland. We have nationally agreed for what we call "special advanced studies" in all the common subjects and schools are allowed to develop their own special courses for that matter. Thus, for two years in a row I have had the wonderful opportunity to include a course about Japanese puzzles to my teaching schedule at Turun iltalukio, night gymnasium for adults in Turku, Finland.

I have always thought that Japanese puzzles are the best possible option when trying to learn logical thinking and Ms. Vihervaara, the principal of Turun iltalukio, knows about my hobby solving them. She is very eager to develop our school and gave permission to try if this course would attract students. Since I am a mathematics teacher and all the courses should fit under some suitable school subject, I chose the course to be an advanced course in mathematics, the shorter syllabus.

A few minor preparations

Enthusiasm has nothing to do with age.

Enthusiasm has nothing to do with age

My students are adults aged 18 to any age. Therefore my teaching differed very much from the experiments of teachers with young children. Most of mine had already tried Sudoku’s and could solve them. Some solved just easier puzzles, some wanted more advanced ones and some of them were already a bit bored of Sudoku’s. What a suitable group to get them introduced to other puzzles, especially the picture logic ones.

The beginning of a Color Pic-a-Pix solution on the wide screen

The beginning of a Color Pic-a-Pix solution on the wide screen

When last year's course took place the popular Finnish publishing company Sanoma Magazines had published a puzzle magazine called Älymix. This magazine was containing various types of Conceptis puzzles including Sudoku, Pic-a-Pix, Link-a-Pix, Fill-a-Pix, Hitori, Battleships and Maze-a-Pix and was perfect to be used as part of my teaching material. Some other puzzles included in the course were free weekly ones from Conceptis' website which I printed for the students.

Solution of a Mega colored Pic-a-Pix from the weekly puzzles presented to the class

Solution of a Mega colored Pic-a-Pix from the weekly puzzles presented to the class

This year was different. The Älymix magazine had not been published in a long time, but mainly - now Conceptis has a new fabulous website and a new set of Flash games to play the puzzles on. As a result, this year's class was held in the computer classroom instead of my own that only has one computer and data projector set. Because of this a few minor preparations had to be made first beginning with Firefox being installed on the computers. After so many bad experiences I've had with IE crashing down I knew I can not afford myself this to happen during the short time we had for the class. Also Adobe Flash was needed.

Students solving a Color Pic-a-Pix on their computers at different paces, all are very concentrated

Lastly, all participants had registered their own personal accounts on conceptispuzzles.com. As many of the weekly picture puzzles were usually solved in my personal Conceptis account I did not want the students to see it so I started a new account as well and everyone could watch me solving the puzzles from scratch.

Dreaming about the puzzles

Students solving a Color Pic-a-Pix on their computers at different paces, all are very concentrated

We started from the most familiar logic puzzle, Sudoku. Knowing quite a few people who tend to solve Sudoku based on intuition or by "trial and error" I demonstrated the students a few possible techniques they can use while solving but kept it short.

Next step was the coloured Pic-a-Pix. I had not had the possibility to teach them so far because we simply don’t have a colour printer to use in day-to-day teaching. Now, however, with the new Flash puzzle games on the site the puzzles were a great success. Some of the students confessed that other obligations had suffered because of the puzzling. One student had even been dreaming about the puzzles!

Students solving a Color Pic-a-Pix on their computers at different paces, all are very concentrated
Students solving a Color Pic-a-Pix on their computers at different paces, all are very concentrated

Above 4: Students solving a Color Pic-a-Pix on their computers at different paces, all are very concentrated

Another great success was Link-a-Pix. The idea was very easy to explain and very soon the students were ready to start playing. Even slower puzzlers could get a good start and got quickly motivated. With Link-a-Pix mistakes are easily recovered and also the check puzzle feature is a good tool for a beginner. So, the course took about 5 weeks and most of the weeks the Link-a-Pix enthusiasts had solved all the Link-a-Pixs of that week.

Slitherlink tutorial animation shown on our 2.5 Meter wide screen. We went through all of it - step by step.

Slitherlink tutorial animation shown on our 2.5 Meter wide screen. We went through all of it - step by step.

Fill-a-Pix, Battleships and Hashi were also included in this year's course because their Interactive game versions had already become available. Maze-a-Pix and even Dot-a-Pix were also introduced but as they don't have any Interactive games – only in a brief. Some of the students were curious about Slitherlink puzzles - which were not playable online at that time – and I wanted to add "deeper mathematics levels" of the puzzle solving aspects. I explained Slitherlink rules and basic techniques and printed a few of the recently released Calcudokus to the dish.

One of the students gave a huge pile of solved puzzles, much more than I actually asked for.

One of the students gave a huge pile of solved puzzles, much more than I actually asked for.

Some thrilled students were actually coloring additional puzzles of types that were not required such this Color Dot-a-Pix.

Some thrilled students were actually coloring additional puzzles of types that were not required such this Color Dot-a-Pix.

After similar teaching course we usually have a five-hour exam but I did not want to use that way to test my students in this case. I know that even I would probably fail if I was given several puzzles and said that I have 5 hours, solve as many as possible. Therefore, I printed a set of all the puzzles and the students were allowed to solve them at home during the course. They could also change the puzzles from the set with the weekly puzzles they had solved. All the students returned the puzzles to me and guess what. Some of them had included many more puzzles than I originally gave them. Shown above are a few of the completed student tasks I received. They were also part of the exam replacement.

Have never seen anything like this!

Leena Helttula and a Color Pic-a-Pix. Photographed by a student named Li Li.

Leena Helttula and a Color Pic-a-Pix. Photographed by a student named Li Li.

In addition, I asked the students to fill in a survey with a few questions about the course. According to the survey results all students had liked the puzzles. One mentioned it was "hard at first" and another wanted "something more", not specifying what exactly. All students, however, thought Japanese puzzles are a nice way to relax providing a suitable puzzle was selected according to the mood. Link-a-Pix received most votes and was clearly the most favourite puzzle. Then came Pic-a-Pix that was number 2, followed by Hashi, Soduku, CalcuDoku, Slitherlink and Fill-a-Pix. Some students had several favourites. The less-liked puzzles were Kakuro, Fill-a-Pix, and Dot-a-Pix. Many did not want to specify any puzzle as not-liked.

People were also very satisfied with the entire idea of Conceptis puzzles and hoped for many more fun and beautiful puzzles. One of the comments had particularly caught my attention. Here it is translate from Finnish to English word by word: "Please sell these to all magazines and include the instructions because all the people I have shown these have never seen anything like this!"

By now, the school principal had already asked for this course to be continued next year. I was obviously very pleased to do comply so planning has already started. First time is always the worst time when you are not sure how things should be organized but now, after the two consecutive successful experiences I am totally confident about it. Knowing the amazing intellectual pleasure picture-logic puzzles are able to give and have always given me I really want this pleasure to be shared with more students in other countries as well.

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Mathematics teacher in a night gymnasium for adults

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