Puzzles: A Problem-Solving Approach

I attended The Innovative Library Classroom (TILC) at William & Mary last week. It is my favorite conference, and I wanted to give it a shout-out just because it’s great (big enough to meet new people and get lots of new ideas, small enough that you can see everything you want to, the organizers are awesome, always great keynote speakers and presentations) but also because one of the lightning talks at the end of the day gave me an idea I wanted to explore some more.

The lightning talk was called “Reshuffling the Deck: Enlisting Students to Re-Envision an Active Learning Classroom.” (The presenters were Alyssa Archer, Charley Cosmato, and Susan Van Patten from Radford University, and Liz Bellamy from William & Mary.) They discussed getting a grant from Steelcase, creating an active learning centered classroom space, and how the librarians wound up finding a general-use layout of the furniture and kind of… leaving it that way. So they created little cutouts of the furniture available in the room and asked students to reconfigure it with different uses in mind. (It’s a really interesting process and if you get the chance to ask any of them about it, I recommend asking them for more detail than I’m reporting here.)

When I got back from the conference, I returned to my current project: redefining the reference schedule.To solve the math problem of fitting the number of librarians into the number of shifts, I’m considering lots of possible options, including reducing the number of hours covered during the day, changing the duration of each shift, making a two-week rotating schedule instead of the same schedule every week, and more creative (see: confusing; complicated) options.

At some point, I took a break to skim my conference notes (trying to take my own advice from several weeks ago) and I was thinking about this puzzle-like approach these librarians took with their space configuration question. Inspired, I cut up the schedule into different pieces and tried putting it back together. In doing so, I found a new way to break up the schedule that I’m going to put forth as our best choice.

I’ve actually explained my love of schedule-making by telling people “it’s like a puzzle made of time and people!” (which sounds fun to me, but earns me some weird looks, so maybe that isn’t a universal opinion) but I had always been envisioning more of a Sudoku puzzle (numbers to plug into boxes) than a jigsaw puzzle (physical pieces that can be reconfigured).

Now I’m finding other problems I can solve with this approach of “cut it up and put it back together.” I want to rearrange my desk to make it more reference-consultation-friendly, so I need to think about how I want to configure the things I use on my desk. (Come to think of it, my living room could probably benefit from this approach, too.) I’ve heard of doing a website analysis by cutting up a screenshot of the homepage, handing the pieces to potential users, and asking them how they would put them together in a logical way, much like the presenters at TILC did with their classroom. I’ve been trying to piece together a research agenda plan for a few months… maybe I’ll try treating that like a puzzle, too!

What problem do you have that needs a new problem-solving approach… and could treating it like a puzzle help?

4 thoughts on “Puzzles: A Problem-Solving Approach”

  1. Alex, thank you for the kind words, we had a blast doing this talk! I hope that I remembered to give credit in the pecha kucha to the wonderful Marisa Sergnese from Steelcase EDU. She facilitated an excellent training workshop on using the Active Learning Center last Fall, and used her own set of cutouts of furniture in some exercises for our team.

    We took it and rolled with it, creating our own cutouts, with Susan taking the lead in developing sessions to get student, faculty, and librarians to help re-envision the space. Link to the slide deck: https://libguides.radford.edu/active/TILC2019

  2. So glad you liked TILC, our lightning talk, and applying the puzzle approach to other situations! Here’s the link to our full slide deck: https://tinyurl.com/y337xqld. For first giving us the idea to use cutouts, we should give a shoutout to Marisa Sergnese, Training & Professional Development at Steelcase Education. We mentioned Steelcase’s training gave us the idea, but not her by name.

  3. Alyssa, thank you for adding to this! And especially for sharing the slide deck!

    I know I had a similar problem with stagnation in our active learning classroom when I was at Tidewater Community College… and we didn’t just leave the furniture in place, because the housekeeping crew was really diligent about moving all the chair-desks to the side of the room to vacuum, so I didn’t even have the “but they’re already in place” excuse. An exercise like this would have been helpful… and fun!

  4. Alex, I’m a big fan of puzzles, and “a puzzle made of time and people” totally resonated with me. I’ve at various points in my job had to make the instruction, reference, and circulation schedules, and wow there are lots of moving parts that can make those tasks challenging and time-consuming. But there’s definitely something satisfying and fun about those puzzle, too.

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