Running out of puzzles

Because people know I run the One Hundred Factorial puzzle sessions, they often ask me if I have a repository of puzzles they can use for their classroom, enrichment program, maths club, or their own enjoyment. Sometimes I feel embarrassed because I don’t actually have a big repository of puzzles. Surely since I am a person known for promoting problem-solving and puzzles, I should have such a thing. At the very least I should have a record of the puzzles we did do. But I don’t.

It turns out my scatterbrained tendency to forget record-keeping is not the main thing that caused this lack of puzzle repository, but only in the last few weeks did I realise what the main cause actually was. It’s that I don’t feel the need for lots of puzzles. A person recently asked for my advice on where to find puzzles and told me the reason was they were worried their maths club would tear through them and so have nothing to do. Only when they gave this reason did I realise I don’t worry about this at One Hundred Factorial. But why?

Firstly, puzzles are not the main food at One Hundred Factorial. I usually have exactly five activities available: a logic puzzle (eg sudoku), a word/geometry puzzle, an art activity/construction toy, a game, and the Numbers Game. If people get to the end of the puzzles, there is always other stuff to do instead.

Secondly, and much more importantly, the whole vibe of One Hundred Factorial means that puzzles do not end. I have carefully cultivated a culture encapsulated in the mantra:

The goal is not the goal. The end is not the end.

What “the goal is not the goal” means is that the stated goal of a puzzle or problem is not the actual goal. The “goal” might be to find the area of a shape, or the probability of some event, or count how many of something there is, or whatever. They are not the goal. The real goals are to learn something, or understand someone’s thinking, or make something beautiful, or find a connection to something else.

What “the end is not the end” means is that even if you do get to the stated goal of a problem, it doesn’t mean the thinking stops. You can ask if there’s another way, or what the problem would be like if you changed this aspect, or look for a connection to something else, or build something cool out of the answer or process. The truth is there is no end.

The mantra of “the goal is not the goal, the end is not the end” means that we can get by at One Hundred Factorial with just one puzzle. In fact, we can get by with no new puzzle at all. Maybe someone was at the previous session and we want to continue with the non-end of last week’s puzzle. Or someone saw a random thing during the week that inspired their thinking and turn up ready to include others in their thinking or find out what thinking it might inspire in others. Or someone pulls out a puzzle that’s been done before and wants to find out how other people might think about it.

As far as I can see it, my approach to cultivating a “goal is not the goal, end is not the end” culture had three aspects:

  1. Constantly ask goal-free, non-end questions like “what are you thinking?”, “is there another way?”, “what would happen if?”, “what can we make?”, “what is this connected to?”.
  2. Notice when other people ask those sorts of questions and run with it. I found that once I became attuned to them, I noticed people asked them a lot more often than I realised.
  3. Provide open-ended things other than just puzzles, like construction toys or art activities. There is nothing like an activity with no goal to foster a more goal free attitude. Even just puzzles with more than one solution foster a more open-ended attitude.

So that’s how I don’t run out of puzzles: I don’t only use puzzles, and when I do, we go further or in different directions than the puzzle says to.

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