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Q&A: How Does Creative Puzzle-Solving Result in Effective Thinking?

University President Dr. Edward Burger’s insights on effective thinking, creative puzzle-solving, and intellectual regret—and why there is no “best” you.

Educator

Edward B. Burger, PhD

President, Southwestern University, Georgetown, TX

PhD in Mathematics, BA in Mathematics

Making Up Your Own Mind: Thinking Effectively through Creative Puzzle-Solving (Princeton University Press, ©2019)

Twitter: @ebb663

For Edward B. Burger, PhD, the decision to write the book Making Up Your Own Mind was a no-brainer. The 136-page hardcover is an extension of the Effective Thinking through Creative Puzzle-Solving course he teaches at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he is a math professor—and the University’s president.

“Even though it is an elective that does not fulfill a university requirement, it has been one of the highest-subscribed classes, ballooning to nearly 50 students one semester,” Dr. Burger says. “If you want to take a class with the president of the university, you should be able to do so, and thus I never turn anyone away. I’d love to have every student in the class.”

Burger playfully refers to this course as the Seinfeld of the curriculum, because it’s about nothing yet everything—“everything” being loosely defined in part of its subtitle, Thinking Effectively, which provides strategies applicable to any challenge in life. Below, you’ll find the Netflix-synopsis version of the strategies he uses to teach effective thinking, and more.

Context

“The question is, do you have the kind of education that’s so robust that it teaches you what to do when you encounter [an intellectual] regret? If so, then that mindset leads you to an actionable step forward. It’s just like failure: You don’t stop there. You say, ‘OK, good. Now what’s next?’”

— Edward B. Burger, PhD

Course: University Studies 232 Effective Thinking and Creative Puzzle-Solving

Description: This two-credit, mini-semester experimental course will sharpen your problem-solving skills, your ability to create novel approaches, see issues from a variety of perspectives, and develop ways of understanding at a deeper level by engaging with different ideas across the curriculum and through logic puzzles and mind-benders. An intentional component of this course is to connect these mindfulness practices to your other classes and to the rest of your life. In addition, weekly special guests having a wide variety of intellectual interests will visit, share their ways of thinking, their life stories, and engage in thought-provoking conversations.

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An overview of Dr. Burger’s class in Making Up Your Own Mind

Burger first provides students with an introduction to the “5 Elements of Effective Thinking,” based on his earlier book coauthored with Michael Starbird, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (Princeton University Press, 2012):

  1. Understand deeply
  2. Fail effectively
  3. Create questions
  4. Go with the flow of ideas
  5. Be open to change

Burger also digs into the “why” of it all—not only of these tactics but the higher purpose of higher education. He then presents ample opportunity each week for students to apply the five principles to a sequence of three increasingly difficult puzzles. (All eight weeks’ worth of mind-benders are included in the book.) To help reveal the thought processes behind the puzzles (and capture what students in his course would experience through his office hours), he follows up with two chapters that take the “flipped teaching” approach literally: One on “thought-provoking prompts” is printed upside down, and one on “reflecting on insights” is typeset (appropriately) as a mirror image.

As an observer of the human condition, Burger knows that some readers will be tempted to skip ahead to the puzzles themselves—or plow through them as quickly as possible—so he provides frequent appeals not to do that. The reason is perhaps the most challenging hurdle of all (at least for avid puzzlers): The ultimate goal is not to solve the puzzles. As Burger explains in the preface: “[To] realize the greatest impact from this tiny book, you must intentionally use the puzzles … as a playground in which to practice elements of effective thinking.”

We caught up with Burger after he delivered an “effective thinking” presentation to a rapt audience of Course Hero staffers at the company headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area. After we played around with several of his favorite puzzles, including one involving the distribution of biscuits to hungry pets, he took time to answer some of our questions. (Incidentally, the interview prep itself was an excellent exercise in strategy number 3—Create questions—and resulted in nearly 100 queries, which were pared down to just seven—for his sake and yours.)

Dr. Burger’s Doggone Puzzle with Cats

Challenge: Ten pets are to be fed exactly 56 biscuits in total. Each animal is either a dog or a cat. Each cat is to be given five biscuits and each dog is to be given six. How many dogs must there be?

Bonus: Solve this puzzle just using the practices of effective thinking rather than resorting to doggone algebra.

Hint: Using the strategy “fail effectively,” start by assuming all 10 animals are the same type of pet, then react to that certainly wrong answer. How many biscuits have I used? How many are unused? What could I do with each of those extra biscuits? What new insight does that lead to?

Course Hero: Where did your idea of teaching “effective thinking” spring from?

Edward Burger: It wasn’t an aha! moment. I would say it was an evolving progression. I spent the first 15 years of my career thinking about how to make math really accessible; really meaningful; and really enjoyable, entertaining, and fun for people, whether they like math or not. And then I started thinking, “What’s the point of that, if they’re going to forget it all?”

I talk about the Teacher’s 20-Year Question in the book, and I think it’s so important: Twenty years from today, what will your students still have from their experience with you that changed them in some positive manner? In almost all cases, the answer will not be the details of the content. Once an instructor embraces that reality, then everything else becomes a lot easier.

For example, the 20-year lesson of art history, in my mind, is how to see the world. How [to] look at the things around us. If you go out and ask someone in the parking lot to draw a face, they’ll draw an oval, and they’ll put two eyes on the top, a mouth on the bottom, a nose in the middle—but that person has never truly looked at a human face. If you really look at someone’s face, you’ll quickly discover that the eyes are actually in the center of the face—and suddenly you discover the forehead and above that the beginning of the scalp. Of course! It’s because we’re never taught how to see. Art history and studio art teach us how to see what’s there and discover what’s missing.

Not surprisingly, art history is a class that medical schools value. Why? Well, I don’t know about you, but if I have to have surgery, I want my surgeons to cut me open, look inside, and see what’s actually there, not what they think they should see.

The way I say it at Southwestern is: We’re not just thinking about the material, which ends with the material, but we’re thinking through the material. Students are learning modes and practices of thought—mindsets—that allow them to probe the depths of their subjects, as well as what can be applied to everything beyond that subject’s borders.

How do you get buy-in from students at first? Because it’s really emotionally difficult to change the way you think.

There are some instructors who believe that it’ll happen naturally, and I respectfully disagree. I think that you need to make it clear what you are doing, and how it is different from their earlier educational experiences, and what the new expectations and goals are. There’s a lot of unlearning involved, which is really complicated.

With respect to what I do, I tell them that it’s not about perfection, it’s about process. Solving the puzzle is not the thing; it’s “How many different ways can you apply elements of effective thinking and make those mindsets everyday practices?”

For example, when students turn in solutions to puzzles, the actual correctness of the solution counts, but it doesn’t make up the entire grade. For each puzzle, I also want them to offer some insight with each of the elements [of effective thinking], in writing:

  • How did you understand deeply with this puzzle?
  • How did you learn from a misstep?
  • What question did you create that allowed you to get some kind of insight?
  • How did the flow of ideas take you someplace new?
  • How has your view of this puzzle changed?

I expect those reflections for every puzzle. That expectation is fairly new for me. Before that, I would just say, “Apply some of the elements.” I realized that doesn’t work, because inevitably they always pick “effective failure.” I want them to engage with all of them so it becomes a practice.

It’s so easy to incorporate these things at the micro level, but it’s got to be a sustained effort. You can’t just talk about these elements on the first day of class and say, “OK, now you know how to think.”

Why is it so important to practice these strategies regularly?

Creating connections takes practice. As I say in the book, initial attempts are often modest and somewhat superficial. Intellectual growth arises from practice and patience. I mean, we’re talking about neural networks and synaptic tissue [that take time to adapt to changes].

There’s a place in [The University of Texas at] Dallas called the Brain Performance Institute—a very serious place where they’re doing brain research on how to amplify the brain as well as help people who have had brain injuries. They are interested in this course and have visited one of the classes at Southwestern University, because they believe that our interconnected curriculum (called Paideia) may have physiological implications to brain development. How exciting would it be if they could measure that? We could show that, physically, there would be differences in the brain after practicing such thinking practices.

What are your expectations for students after they take this course?

Like I say in the book, I’m not going to tell you what to think. But I am going to tell you how to think better. For you. So you can be a better version of you. And part of your journey is to figure out what that means. “A better version of you” is not well defined.

By the way, when I was a younger educator, I used to talk about “your best self”—you know, the best version of you. And I realized that’s just wrong. It’s a nice little sound bite, but it’s wrong. Because we’re constantly growing, we’re constantly evolving, we’re constantly changing, and ideally, we should be constantly becoming better, and better, and better, and better.

So there is no “best.” But rather, you keep becoming better until the end of your life. The idea of “best self” sounds good, but, in reality, there’s no fixed, final destination. You have to keep journeying through life by continually learning and growing. That’s why I now talk about a “better version” of you.

Speaking of saying things differently, in the book, you use the word “puzzle” instead of “problem.” But you still use the words “failure” and “frustration.” Is there a reason for that?

It’s all semantics, but it’s a really interesting question I hadn’t thought of. So here’s my response: A problem is a well-defined bad thing. That’s what “problem” means in everyday life. Now, “failure” is perceived as being bad, and I would argue that I’d like for it to be perceived to be not bad. And frustration is, again, just an emotion which we deem as bad. In fact, I am writing another book right now in which I dream on the page, “What if we could get people to see frustration as a positive thing?”

If I’m frustrated, it means that something’s happening! And, if you’re open to that perspective, then you’re open to growth opportunities. If you’re not, then you’re going to put yourself into a box, and not much is going to happen.

So problem, by definition, is a bad thing. But these other words are generating emotions that are bad, and I believe we can retrain ourselves to have those words generate productive reactions (and positive emotions).

You also mentioned that you are a “big fan” of regret. Why is that?

I love intellectual regret. When I was in college, I was really into math. The idea of taking an art history course was just … it was so unappealing to me. You sit in a darkened room and look at slides, one after the other, hearing facts and dates and names and … then, memorizing them all … I thought, “Ugh, that’s torture, give me more calculus!”

Then you fast-forward. I’m in my 30s, and I develop a curiosity about art, and about art history. In college, it wasn’t the right time for me. Then, I evolved into a person who became ready. I regretted, then, not taking art history, so I started reading about art and art history, I took some courses, and those worlds really resonated with me. I think my interest in art made me a better research mathematician. I started to produce a little bit of art and regularly go to galleries and museums. Today it’s just a part of me.

I could’ve sat there and just regretted, “Oh, I never took art history as an undergraduate.” Instead, I did something about it.

The question is, do you have the kind of education that’s so robust that it teaches you what to do when you encounter that type of regret? If so, then that mindset leads you to an actionable step forward. It’s just like failure: You don’t stop there. You say, “OK, good. Now what’s next?

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