Discovery Learning: The Story of the Rubik’s Cube

Starring the inimitable Bodil Isaksen, the amazing Sarah Clear, the redoubtable Katie Ashford, and the wonderful geeks of Michaela Community School

In a bid to make my lengthy commute more enjoyable, I have been experimenting with a range of pastimes on the tube: listening to audiobooks; playing (losing) chess against my phone; ensuring a liberal distribution of croissant crumbs about my person.

I found a new activity a week ago.  While talking to the excellent Ms Isaksen in her classroom, I noticed the small pile of Rubik’s cubes she keeps there as prizes for exceptional performance in Maths.  She lent me one to play with, and a new obsession was born.  I had played with Rubik’s cubes in my early teens, although I had never learned to solve one.

In the following week, I muddled and fiddled and shuffled my way around the cube.  I got really good at solving one side, but was utterly flummoxed after that point.  I thought that either it was a matter of time until I cracked it, or that I just wasn’t Rubik’s cube material.  Meanwhile, my colleague Ms Clear solved one in fewer than 3 minutes in front of my form, to the awe and applause of the kids.

It was then that I bit the bullet and looked up the solution online.  I figured that if I wasn’t making any headway in solving one myself, I could learn from the experts.  So, I wrote down the algorithms and, lo and behold, I solved the cube.  And then I solved it again.  I started to see the interrelation of the movements to the positions of the pieces, and the first few steps at least became completely automatic.  I was soon able, with the help of the algorithms, to solve a cube in less than 6 minutes.  It felt like a real triumph.

A lovely side-effect of my determination was that a group of about 15 pupils would ask to play with the cube every break time, and huddle together helping one another to put certain pieces in certain places.  They were all wonderfully confident in their ability to solve the cube, even though they never had before.  This confidence usually wore off after about 20 minutes of play.

I realised that my pupils, Ms Clear and I fell into three distinct categories.

Ms Clear has a well-developed understanding of the interrelation of the pieces on the cube, and a seemingly innate sense of how to solve one. She can solve a cube with ease.

The pupils have boundless enthusiasm, but no real understanding of how the cube works or how to solve one.  Without guidance, they become quickly disenchanted when their efforts go unrewarded.

I had no real understanding of how the cube worked, but I was shown the answer by somebody with expertise, and as a result came to understand and be able to solve the cube.  I was then able to practice until the steps became embedded and automatic.

While showing off my new skills to my fellow teachers, I explained that I was ‘cheating’ – that I’d looked up the algorithms and followed them, because I was fed up of not knowing how to do it.  Ms Ashford chimed in that this was an amazing analogy for discovery learning, something that we have quite strong feelings about at Michaela.  She had, in just a few words, summarised exactly what was going on.

In a discovery learning classroom, you have two kinds of pupil – the pupils who get it (Ms Clear) and the pupils who don’t (me).  The pupils who get it feel clever; the pupils who don’t feel stupid.  This is hugely damaging.  It lulls the pupils who get it into a false sense of security (“I got it on my own because I’m smart”) and reinforces to the pupils who don’t get it that they never will (“I don’t get it because I’m stupid”).

Neither of these states are necessary.  I chose the alternative: learn how to do it from people who know how.  I found (was given) the necessary information to complete the task and to be, and feel, successful.  It had nothing to do with ability, and everything to do with practice and assimilation of the new material.  Now, no layperson would be able to tell the difference between me and somebody who intuitively ‘gets’ how to solve a Rubik’s cube.

My housemate, when I related this story, said that I was cheating – that I couldn’t really solve the cube by myself because I’d learned using the algorithms.  This is arrant nonsense.  The end result is the same: I can solve a Rubik’s cube.  I got there with far less pain and frustration than if I’d tried without guidance.  I don’t feel any less smart for not being able to intuitively solve the cube: I feel accomplished because I’ve gone some way to mastering the tried-and-tested technique.

If we give the kids who don’t get it the algorithm, we give them the key to success.  If we give the kids who do get it the algorithm, they get to practise and make it automatic.  Tell the kids everything they need to know, and then give them lots of opportunities to practise.  Only then will everybody be able to ‘solve the cube’.


3 thoughts on “Discovery Learning: The Story of the Rubik’s Cube

  1. Thank you for writing this post. I think the only cheating going on is when those taught via direct instruction then insist their own pupils learn through discovery. It is cheating them of the experience that the vast majority of us had at school – the knowledge and support to learn things that we did not ‘get’ straight away.

    Every human in the whole history of humanity has needed help to grasp something.

    This doesn’t mean we can all be brilliant at everything – my playing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ on the piano does not match my partners ability to play classical music. However, there is merit in learning, even those things we are not innately good at if it improves the quality of our lives in some way.


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