Learning as Puzzle Solving

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"A thinker is very much like a draughtsman whose aim it is to represent all the interrelations between things." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)

Learning is often completed collaboratively with others, and features a sense of mutual accomplishment as the learners embark on a journey of discovery, consolidation and confidence. The following seven principles of "learning as problem solving" are taken from the following reference:

Geekie, P., Cambourne, B., & Fitzsimmons, P. (2004). Learning as puzzle solving. In Grainger, T (ed) The RoutledgeFalmer reader in language and literacy (pp 107 – 118). London: RoutledgeFalmer

  • Principle One: Learning is often mutual accomplishment

This implies a few things. First, the learner and the teacher jointly share similar (but not the same) motivation in accomplishing the task. Second, the teaching is shaped by the contribution provided by the learner, and that the teacher adapts the teaching to achieve the mutual goal with the learner. Third, there is a sense of satisfaction from both teacher and student.

  • Principle Two: Children often learn through guided participation

In this case, the learner benefits from observing and practicing with the skilled teacher. The effective teacher also is skilled at arranging tasks in such a way so that the learner develops increasing proficiency with the various elements of the skills, such that a student can “go on” independently through practice.

  • Principle Three: Children profit from the support of more competent people

It may appear like common sense, but learners benefit when they learn from people who are more skilled … from people who can provide tips and tricks and who can demonstrate, structure and model the skills being learnt.

  • Principle Four: Effective instruction is contingent instruction

This merely means that effective instruction occurs when the learning is linked to the teaching. In other words, it is best when the learning can be directly applied … when the learning is immediately relevant. It is ineffective to provide a list of steps and tasks, follow this with a break of two days, and then ask the students to remember and apply the learning after temporal and spatial disconnection. Effective learning occurs when the teaching is paced so the learner can practice and master skills in response to the teaching.

  • Principle Five: It not interaction itself but the quality of the interaction that contributes to better learning.

Not all teaching results in learning … Nor is all learning the result of explicit teaching. Effective teaching involves a teacher who knows how to support, guide and shape the learner. One can enhance the learning process by creating a situation that involves collaboration and shared decision-making.

  • Principle Six: Language is the means through which self-regulation of learning develops behaviour.

Have you every found yourself repeating the steps of a task as a way to help you remember a skill? Did you ever have a teacher ask you to say something back in your own words as a way to make sure that you understood something? Have you been able to crystalise your learning down to a few key words that stick with you? Being able to verbalise one’s own learning and practices is an effective way to scaffolding future actions.

  • Principle Seven: Learning depends on the negotiation of meaning.

We value teachers who respond to our questions. We value teachers who take the time to confirm, clarify and prompt our understanding. We value teachers who take our ideas into consideration and validate those ideas before progressing to respond appropriately.

In short, effective learning occurs when:

  • Teacher and student share a goal;
  • The teacher carefully guides the student to mastery;
  • The teacher’s skills are strong and trusted;
  • The learner can immediately apply, test and clarify the teaching;
  • The teacher is patient (when needs to be), firm (where required), is aware of space and time; and is collaborative;
  • The learner acquires the language to speak, ask questions, describe, monitor, etc.
  • The teacher “checks-in” to ask questions in order to clarify, confirm and elaborate on understandings.

Perhaps, we should imagine a teacher and a learner sitting over a car engine. The teacher is an avid mechanic, and the learner is keen to learn the trade. How might you imagine the process that would ensue for the young apprentice to be brought into full acquaintance with the complexity of the car engine.


A “constructivist” approach is implied in the principles above. The principles imply that more experienced individuals need to offer safe spaces where novices can come to approach, learn, master, question and refine skills under the scaffolded guidance of one who is more skilled.  The “teacher” initiates the learner into a series of practices to be able to execute skills as well as perform them and speak about them clearly.  In addition to the skills developed, this type of teaching also initiates the learner into the “temperament” of someone skilled in this particular practice.

Questions to reflect upon:

  • Can you reflect upon how the principles played a role in your own successful learning at important stages in your life?
  • Can you reflect upon how a “lack” of one or more of the principles led to unsuccessful learning? (perhaps, you didn’t share the same passion as the teacher [lack of mutual accomplishment] or you didn’t feel like you had the right guidance or support)
  • Principle #6 is close to my heart. Why is it important that the learner develop the language necessary to converse about the skill? Where and how does the learner “pick up” this language? How does the teacher introduce the language? It may help to think of examples. (What would be meant to say that the language was contingent to the learning?)
  • Consider a situation of learning, and discuss the difference between high quality of interaction and poor quality of interaction? (Consider – for instance – qualities such as patience, how one paces the learning, how equipment is organised. The exact qualities will depend on the exact skill being taught.)