Teaching English through Riddles: “Strange Attractors and the Gordian Knot” – Workshop with Nick Munby

in ELTABB/Professional Development

Riddles are intriguing and fun for learners of all ages. Kit Flemons recaps Nick Munby’s webinar on teaching English with logic puzzles and shares what he learnt about mental gymnastics and the art of asking the right questions.

I’m sure many of you readers will recall university days of waking up late, dashing to class, coffee in hand, sneaking into the back of a lecture while keeping your groggy head down and hoping to absorb whatever information is coming your way (I, naturally, have no such experience, model student that I am).

In the days of the Corona Lockdown and semi-private Zoom conferences, it may be tempting to do so again. But today’s workshop would allow no such shirking and idleness.

The brain loves to be engaged

We were introduced briefly to the idea that the brain is a machine for learning. It is drawn to seeking shapes and patterns and solving problems. What’s more, puzzles encourage speaking for a purpose – crucial for teaching English – as they offer a practical and fun application for learned language.

The brain is a machine for learning.

We then jumped straight into our breakout rooms, to stretch our Saturday-morning brains with the first logic puzzle (here is a link so that you can test your wits, with a full list of the puzzles we did at the end of the article).

Analyse your approach

Nick encouraged us not simply to solve the puzzle, but think about how we tried to do it. Did we:

  • start by whipping out our calculators and examining the numbers?
  • reach for our knowledge of ancient history (Nick’s version was set in the city of Alexandria)?
  • look for significance in the phrasing of the question itself?

After five minutes in the breakout rooms, we reconvened to compare answers and discuss the processes behind our thinking. A key concept was that we all felt we didn’t have enough information to answer the question – but we did…

Asking the right questions

The trick lay in ‘thinking around the question’ – sidestepping the obvious pathways (‘strange attractors’) our brain tries to follow and looking for more scenic routes to the conclusion.

Help came when Nick asked ‘guiding questions’ – questions that didn’t provide clues to the answer, but clues to the approach; questions that led us to ask our own, more pertinent questions, until the answer suddenly snapped into perfect focus.

Once somebody had arrived at this answer, Nick encouraged them to explain their working to the class.

It can be easier for somebody who has only just learned something to explain it to others than it is for an ‘expert’; the learner has just found their way to the solution, and the pitfalls and clues are fresher in their mind.

Backflips and brain twisters

Our second logic puzzle required us to think about how we disprove rules, rather than prove them; the brain is keen to draw patterns, making it difficult not to leap at what seems like an alluring proof when it is presented.

Explaining how one arrived at the solution to this puzzle was… more than a little tricky even in our native tongues. To do so as a learner of a foreign language would require considerable mental and linguistic gymnastics – exactly what we, as teachers are keen to encourage!

The journey is its own reward

If you can get your students communicating in this way – asking lots of questions and challenging their own preconceptions – they will be using a range of English for a purpose, and hopefully enjoying themselves too.

That’s a sure route to success in an English lesson!

The next two puzzles seemed to feature a terrifying amount of maths… But, like with most logic puzzles, you don’t need particular skills to work out the answer and cut the proverbial ‘Gordian knot’. You don’t need to be a mathematician (indeed, then you may make it worse by struggling through the calculations, rather than approaching the problem with fresh naivete).

You just need to think carefully from lots of different angles – a process facilitated by groups of people talking among each other, discussing, using their language and twisting their brains in interesting ways.

Is this actually about teaching?

It was after one more logic puzzle that my brain twisted itself in such a way and I had my own ‘Eureka!’ moment. Up to this, there was a certain sense that ‘This isn’t about English teaching! This is just having fun doing puzzles, like I do [note – “used to do”] in the pub with friends!’

It became apparent, however, that this workshop was actually helping us much more broadly than simply ‘telling us how to teach’.

The best way to encourage learning is to encourage students to work out the answer themselves.

We were being guided, as with the puzzles themselves, into arriving at our own solutions. Nick showed us that the best way to encourage learning isn’t to point out an answer, but encourage students to work out the answer themselves by offering guided questions and hints.

Final thoughts

Logic puzzles are a useful means to encourage the practical, fun use of English. The way one should present them is also very similar to how one should teach any subject. This lesson was much broader than simply ‘logic puzzles in the classroom’. It was a way to shape our entire approach to teaching.

Nick left us with one more logic puzzle to riddle out ourselves. It was testament to how enjoyable the workshop was that quite a number of us stayed until well after the end discussing possible solutions, other logic puzzles, and how the human brain works in approaching solutions.

Sometimes, the best learning doesn’t feel like learning, and that’s exactly what happened today.

List of logic puzzles mentioned:

  1. Introductory riddle
  2. Logic puzzle for disproving rules
  3. First math puzzle
  4. Second math puzzle
  5. Brain twister with eureka effect
  6. Final puzzle

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Kit’s workshop review about creative teaching techniques.

Following the traditional path of discovering Rammstein, Kraftwerk and Run Lola Run as a teenager, Kit has dreamed of living in Germany ever since. Finally making the move in January 2019, he now works here as a freelance English teacher by day and by night enjoys reading, writing and weeping into books of German grammar.

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