Puzzles for Brain Fitness


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We all exercise to keep our bodies strong and healthy. Now more and more people are playing puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku to keep their brains strong and healthy. This talk lays out how puzzles will need to be shaped to best serve the growing market for brain games.

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  • I’m Scott Kim. I’m going to be talking about designing puzzles for brain fitness — an exciting new area of education that is now my professional focus.
  • You’d think they’re already used.
  • And here’s why.
  • To give you some perspective on brain fitness, I’d like to talk about the bigger picture of how puzzles fit into education.
  • There are three fundamantal types of education. In each area puzzles serve a different purpose.
  • The first way to use puzzles is to teach a particular subject in school. Math, science, but also used for history, art, etc. Puzzles are a great alternative to worksheets as a fun way to get students to practice basic skills and gain expertise. For instance an elementary teacher might use a dice game to get students to arithmetic. To use puzzles effectively, teachers need to know which puzzles go with what subjects.
  • For instance, tangrams are a fun and memorable way for students to learn about fractions, as well as area.
  • The second way to use puzzles is to teach more general problem solving strategies that apply not just in math, but in all areas of life. At Stanford there were two courses on problem solving: in engineering and business. Half the value of such a course is learning a vocabulary for talking about problem solving strategies. Problem solving really should be part of all schools, early, along with study skills. But it isn’t.
  • The challenge in using puzzles to teach problem solving is to teach kids not just how to solve a particular puzzle, but to teach strategies that transfer to other domains. The key is to get students to reflect on how they are solving puzzles. Here’s an activity I invented based on Rush Hour that engages students in planning ahead, and thinking of puzzles creatively.
  • The third way to use puzzles in education is the new and rapidly growing area of brain fitness. The idea is that you can exercise your brain the same way you exercise your body, as part of staying fit. There are starting to be brain gyms, brain fitness books, etc, that collect games for exercising various areas of the brain. The top two areas are relaxation and memory.
  • For instance, the classic card game Concentration is a good memory game. Note that concentration can be customized with different pictures. The game on the left features animals, the game on the right is made out of personal photos.
  • Over the years I’ve done work in all three areas. I’ve noticed that the three types of education form a pyramid, ranging from specific at the top to general at the bottom. Subject matter is the most specific. Problem solving is more general. Brain training is the most general of all, applying to all people of all ages. Where is the best opportunity to make progress?
  • Not schools. Schools don’t have money, and teachers are under pressure to teach to the test.
  • Not problem solving. It’s a great topic, but schools don’t recognize it as worth teaching.
  • I believe brain fitness is by far the most fertile area for change.
  • So let’s look at brain fitness in more detail.
  • As I said, it’s part of overall health. Analogous to physical fitness. Over the last few decades physical exercise and good nutrition have gone from being medical specialties to part of our mainstream lifestyle. Even McDonald’s features healthy food.
  • The same thing is now happening with brain fitness. Fueled by fear, and by healthy lifestyle, and emergence of games like Sudoku. It’s a commonly understood need: my Mom plays crosswords to keep her mind sharp.
  • The breakthrough product in brain fitness was the electronic game Brain Age, from Nintendo. Since then, quite a few brain fitness games and web sites have sprung up, all promising well-rounded brain exercise programs.
  • But that’s just the beginning. In the next decade I expect to see brain fitness products become as mainstream as exercise balls and yoga mats, and be a section of its own in retail stores like Walmart and Borders.
  • Designing puzzles to serve brain fitness requires rethinking how puzzles are presented. Just as popularizing rock climbing required rethinking the sport. Whether or not you are interested in brain fitness, these are stimulating thoughts for puzzle afficionados. Here’s what I’m thinking about now for brain fitness puzzles.
  • The first point is to show people. What does exercise equipment come with? A video of someone showing you how the equipment work, and pacing you through the exercises. The same should be done for puzzles.
  • The most useful puzzles can be played again and again at a variety of difficulty levels. After all, you wouldn’t want to buy a treadmill that went at only one speed. Some classic puzzles already meet this requirement.
  • People won’t track their performance if it’s tedious and cumbersome. Automating performance tracking means many more people will actually do it.
  • To rate a player’s performance accurately, it’s best if a play session is broken into many small subpuzzles that follow a consistent format. For instance, you can rate a player’s performance solving a Sudoku puzzle by recording how long it takes to solve the whole puzzle. But you get a much better, more fine-grained analysis if you rate each individual move. To make Sudoku work this way, you have to change the game a bit. In the Sudoku at right the player is asked to choose which token to place on the square marked with a question mark. By constraining the player’s options, we avoid the inevitable long pauses that happen when the player is searching for where to move next.
  • Finally, the puzzles that can be customized with thematic pictures or words can keep a player interested over a long period of time, long after they master the basic play mechanism. The most enduring puzzle forms – crosswords and jigsaws – have this quality.
  • Puzzles for Brain Fitness

    1. 1. PUZZLES FOR BRAIN FITNESS <ul><li>Scott Kim, shufflebrain.com </li></ul><ul><li>The 29th International Puzzle Party, Aug 8, 2009 </li></ul>
    2. 3. Puzzles = mental sports <ul><li>Puzzles are to mental fitness as Sports are to physical fitness </li></ul><ul><li>A fun way to stay healthy </li></ul>
    3. 4. as an elite sport <ul><li>Small community </li></ul><ul><li>Motivated by sport itself </li></ul><ul><li>High challenge </li></ul>Puzzles
    4. 5. as a popular sport <ul><li>Big community </li></ul><ul><li>Motivated by fun, health </li></ul><ul><li>Adapt sport for novices </li></ul><ul><li>Experts become coaches </li></ul>Puzzles
    5. 6. Education Putting brain fitness in context
    6. 7. Three ways to use puzzles <ul><li>1. Teach a subject </li></ul><ul><li>2. Teach problem solving </li></ul><ul><li>3. Exercise your brain </li></ul>
    7. 8. 1. Teach a subject <ul><li>Teach a subject like math or physics </li></ul><ul><li>Alternative to worksheets </li></ul><ul><li>Match puzzle with subject </li></ul>SUBJECT Arithmetic Fractions Geometry Combinatorics Perspective PUZZLE Math Dice Tangrams Pattern Blocks Pentominoes Towers of Hanoi
    8. 9. Fractions Tangrams 1. Teach a subject
    9. 10. 2. Teach problem solving <ul><li>Teach general strategies </li></ul><ul><li>That apply to all sorts of problems </li></ul><ul><li>Match puzzle with strategy </li></ul>STRATEGIES Work Backwards Be Systematic Plan Ahead Eliminate Parity PUZZLE Maze Towers of Hanoi Rush Hour Tangrams 15 Puzzle
    10. 11. Plan Ahead Rush Hour 2. Teach problem solving
    11. 12. 3. Exercise your brain <ul><li>Exercise areas of brain </li></ul><ul><li>Similar to physical fitness </li></ul><ul><li>Match puzzle with brain area </li></ul>BRAIN AREA Memory Focus Logic Language Visual PUZZLE Concentration Labyrinth Rubik’s Cube Boggle Jigsaw Puzzle
    12. 13. Memory Concentration 3. Exercise your brain
    13. 14. Where is the opportunity? 1. Subject 2. Problem solving 3. Brain fitness
    14. 15. Where is the opportunity? 1. Subject 2. Problem solving 3. Brain fitness Limited Schools have no money (but parents paying for extra classes is growing)
    15. 16. Where is the opportunity? 1. Subject 2. Problem solving 3. Brain fitness Limited Limited Schools don’t teach problem solving (but professional ed sometimes does)
    16. 17. Where is the opportunity? Limited 1. Subject 2. Problem solving 3. Brain fitness Limited BIG OPPORTUNITY People want it and feel they need it.
    17. 18. Brain Fitness
    18. 19. Part of healthy lifestyle
    19. 20. A major growing trend
    20. 21. Now: computer games
    21. 22. Future: mass market Brain Fitness
    22. 23. Puzzles for brain fitness What they need to do
    23. 24. 1. Show people
    24. 25. 2. Reconfigurable pieces
    25. 26. 3. Performance tracking
    26. 27. 4. Small rateable chunks
    27. 28. 5. Customizable content
    28. 29. Conclusions
    29. 30. Summary <ul><li>Education — three types </li></ul><ul><li>Brain fitness — major health trend </li></ul><ul><li>Puzzles — what they need to do </li></ul>
    30. 31. Opportunities <ul><li>Collector: Choose puzzles </li></ul><ul><li>Solver: Teach, coach </li></ul><ul><li>Maker: Adapt puzzles </li></ul><ul><li>Inventor: New puzzles </li></ul>[email_address]
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