What a Rubik’s Cube Taught Me About Teaching

My son received a Rubik’s Cube this last Christmas, but it wasn’t the first one he had received. We had given him one the year before, but it ended up slipping through a worm hole shortly thereafter. This year a second cube appeared around Christmas (whether it be a new one or the old one re-emerging from the alternate dimension, I cannot say for certain). My son took little interest in it, but after walking by the cube on his shelf for about two weeks, we finally locked eyes. Yes, the cube’s two blue upper corner pieces were positioned on either side of a red upper edge piece, forming a face resembling a blue-eyed Emoji with a cold. At that moment, I knew the time had come. I was going to learn to solve that cube.

And so I did.

My first solve took about 15 minutes as I struggled through interpreting the algorithms I discovered on the internet. It wasn’t long before I was solving in under 10 minutes, though still encumbered by the notes that I had put together based on some cubic gurus online. I knew that it was time to commit these things to memory. Once I had them stored in my brain rather than just on paper, my times began to drop rapidly. 5 minutes. 4 minutes. 3 minutes. By this time, my son was enthralled as well, and took to solving the 2×2 cube. The first time I solved the cube in under 2 minutes, I was elated. When I told my son, he was utterly in awe of his father. It was a good feeling, I must admit.

As I dove further into the rabbit hole of cubing, I began to think more and more about what was happening to me and the process of education. I began to think about John Milton Gregory’s 7 Laws of Teaching (full text available here: http://canonpress.com/content/AG-003.pdf).

I summarize the 7 Laws this way (see p. 16 on the above link):

  1. Teacher’s gotta know” (Law of the Teacher)
  2. Learner must attend” (Law of the Learner)
  3. Language is the medium” (Law of the Language)
  4. Lesson for a friend” (Law of the Lesson)
  5. Teaching Process—Arousing” (Law of the Teaching Process)
  6. Learning Process—Thinking” (Law of the Learning Process)
  7. Review—Reproduce” (Law of Review)

Here’s what I learned, Law by Law:

Law of the Teacher

The one teaching has to know how to solve a cube. Duh.

Law of the Learner

The one learning has to pay attention. Check.

Law of the Language

Here is where things get interesting. There is a whole code and language that goes along with cubing and describing various movements necessary to solve the different parts of the cube. Once you learn this language, it actually is very helpful. But before that time comes, it creates a barrier between teacher and learner. Using language in our classrooms that is foreign to our students does not impress them. Instead it isolates them from you, and you from them. Good teachers swallow their pride and use language that is common to their pupils. If there are some special terms that you want them to know, there’s nothing wrong with that. You just need to teach them what those terms mean, then don’t be surprised when the next time you use the term, they’ve already forgotten the meaning.

Law of the Lesson

The first time you read through instructions for how to solve a cube, it is quite overwhelming. Sure, maybe it’s not at first when you just have to solve the white cross and get the corners into the right place. But once you have to start getting the middle layer set and the yellows all oriented, your head will be swimming. Is it because it’s complicated? No. It’s because it’s all brand new. It’s just too much information to process in a short amount of time. So you have to start with what you can figure out. You practice that for a little bit, then you move on to the next step, playing with the different options, trying to figure out the logic, and as you do that it begins to make sense. The point is—just because someone doesn’t understand something the first time you tell them—that does not mean they are dumb. You may read Plato’s Republic and think “That was so simple! How do you not get it?” Well, I can guarantee you that the Republic wasn’t the first book you read after finishing Curious George in 1st grade. You have been shaped by practice. In the same way, your students aren’t dumb, they just need stepping stones—they need a clear path to get from where they currently reside to the place where you want them to be. Throwing them into the deep end doesn’t make for good swimmers. Even if they learn some kind of flailing doggy paddle to stay afloat, that is far from proper swim form. Help them take one step at a time.

Law of the Teaching Process

The joy of learning the cube is the solve. What’s addictive about the whole thing is that you get “wins” along the way. When you solve under 5 minutes for the first time, it’s a “win”. Likewise for 4 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute and 45 seconds, etc. If no one was ever able to taste that “win” until they were able to do it in under 30 seconds, almost no one would get into cubing. In the same way, do you create ways for your students to “win”? Do they get that little joy of victory on a regular basis? That feeling is addictive. Utilize it with your students. But even before you solve the whole cube for the first time, you also celebrate the first time you get all the corners in the right position on purpose, move the right color to the edge, or get your first algorithm committed to heart. As a teacher, you can make “wins” out of benchmarks, small achievements, and personal bests. While it may be technically true, telling them “When you finally graduate from here you’ll appreciate all this” doesn’t create a lot of motivation in students. It’s a delicate balance pushing students as hard as is necessary while also helping them maintain their joy in learning.

Law of the Learning Process

See “Law of the Learner” above.

Law of Review

When you read online about how to increase speed, there is one consistent word: Practice. You must practice, practice, practice. The goal is for it to transition from an algorithm that you think about to a second nature that is ingrained in your being. I am convinced more and more that this is at the heart of good education. Writing should be taught in a way that they practice so much, that they stop thinking about conventions and tropes, and it simply flows out of them as second nature. The same goes for their math facts. Their grasp of history should be tied to events that have been so rehearsed they don’t even have to think about it anymore. It is part of who they are. I believe this is one of the chief failures of progressive education—the assumption that if you can check off a “I taught this concept on such and such date” then the student must know what was taught. That simply isn’t true. Just think back on your own education and how much you have forgotten since that time. I dare say that I’ve forgotten 95-98% of what I’ve “learned.” This doesn’t mean that you just need to repeat what you say 3 times, 5 times, or 7 times. No, this means that you have to figure out a way to have the students practice it for themselves—wrestling with it, debating it, attacking it from every angle. They must interact with the concept with their ears, their hands, and their eyes if it is going to impact their minds and hearts. Teaching is not a matter of what comes out of a teacher’s mouth. It is about what happens in the student’s heart, head, and soul.

As of today, I can consistently solve the cube in under 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and often can solve under 2 minutes. To get under that 1 minute threshold and approach the 20-30 second range requires a lot more practice, quite a few more memorized algorithms, and a cube that is designed for speed and properly “tuned”. I haven’t decided if it’s really worth my time to push into this realm. We will see. But whether I decide to take that challenge on or not, the lessons I have learned from my cube will remain.

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