In Sudoku club, Scotten School students love thinking logically
May 4, 2015
About eight years ago, Jerry Martin saw a Sudoku puzzle in the newspaper. He decided to give it a try, and was instantly hooked.
He liked the challenge of filling the puzzle's 9×9 grid with digits so that each column, row and 3×3 sub-grid within the puzzle contained every number from 1-9. But the more puzzles he completed, the more he started to see that Sudoku had potential beyond being a hobby.
"I realized this is a lot more than just a little puzzle," Martin, 73 said. "Or it could be."
To Martin, Sudoku seemed like the perfect way to teach logical thinking to others. He developed a 95-slide presentation aimed at helping Sudoku novices learn how to complete the puzzles, and began selling them on a website he created to support the project. But he really wanted an opportunity to teach others face-to-face.
So last April, he started volunteering his time to teach an after-school Sudoku club for students at Margaret G. Scotten Elementary School; the group meets once a week for about an hour each session.
The club, Martin said, "is introducing logic to second, third and fourth graders in a fun, easy way to get across."
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One year later, the club is a hit with students. On a recent afternoon, 17 kids file into the classroom at around 4:15 p.m. Martin projects a puzzle onto the whiteboard at the front of the room and hands each student a pencil and a paper copy of the puzzle.
He writes the words "relevant" and "non-relevant" on the white board underneath the puzzle – those two words are key, he said, because logical thinking depends on one's ability to discern what information is needed and what information can be ignored. Students begin to grapple with the puzzle on their papers, and when Martin asks, "Who has an answer?" five hands shoot into the air.
Martin asks Chevelle Cunningham to come to the front of the room. The third-grader begins reasoning through the puzzle out loud, trying to figure out where in a particular sub-grid the number eight should go, using some of the numbers that are pre-filled into the puzzle as clues.
The students continue to work through the puzzle, with different students coming to the board and filling in different numbers. Eventually, Martin steps back a bit, offering the occasional assistance or insight but mostly letting students help each other to come up with the answers they're looking for.
By practicing Sudoku, Martin said, students are not just learning to reason. They're learning to think critically, to be accurate and to work together to solve problems – all skills that translate to many different facets of life.
"I think it teaches kids how to think in a smart way," Martin said. "I actually tell them, this will make you smarter."
Martin noted that students get some practice with logical thinking during the school day, but not with the same focus that they get when completing puzzles. For instance, he said, if a student isn't accurate or doesn't reason correctly when doing a puzzle, they'll eventually find that the whole puzzle is wrong — and they'll have to go back, find their mistake and re-think their reasoning.
"I'm making the case [for logical thinking] real loud and clear," Martin said.
For Martin, part of the reason Sudoku is effective as a teaching tool is because it's practical – it can be done anywhere, it transcends different languages and it requires no electronic devices.
But for the students, it's just plain fun. "It's numbers," said second-grader Aiden Conner. "I like numbers and there are lots of numbers. I think they're cool."
Cunningham said he works on puzzles when he's at home, but still can't wait for the club each week.
Several students said they liked that Martin allows them to work through the puzzles and come up with the answers on their own. Fourth-grader Isabelle Hines said she likes being able to help her peers solve the puzzles. "I wait a few minutes and tell them to keep trying," Hines said. "If they can't figure it out in 10 minutes, I tell them how they would have gotten the answer."
Most students were able to agree on their favorite part of working on Sudoku puzzles – solving them.
"I like being able to go up and answer questions that normally most people wouldn't know how to answer," said fourth-grader Kaleb Bilderback.
As the hour goes by, the students eventually work to fill in one of the 3×3 sub-grids in the puzzle. And when they do, it's time to celebrate. Martin asks the students what they do when they've solved a block of the puzzle, and the students don't miss a beat.
"Victory dance!" they cheer, and Martin and the students dance around the room for a few minutes, chanting "Sudoku! Sudoku!"
Martin makes it a point to celebrate any time the students solve a section of the puzzle. He noted that solving the puzzles doesn't really leave students with tangible takeaways. No one really saves the paper puzzles after they've completed them; they just move on to the next one. So the celebrations help signify that the students are continuing to develop and solidify those logical thinking skills.
With Sudoku, "it's the process that's so important," Martin said. "It's not the destination, it's the journey that teaches these kinds of really valuable skills."
To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4230.