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How do you get kids to tackle the most difficult problems with courage, grace, and an open mind?  How do you get them to look at a problem they have no idea how to solve, and NOT say, “This is TOO hard – I can’t do this!” but, instead, say, “Here I go!  I can marshal the resources, cleverness, and energy to do this problem!  I’m gonna keep on truckin’!”

This is a conundrum I (and you other teachers, too, I think) face with all of my students, but it often hits me most poignantly with my 3rd graders.  Maybe it’s because they’re so expressive.  Maybe it’s because they’re so cute – and I hate to see them sad.  Maybe it’s simply because my instincts for how 3rd graders’ minds work are less developed than my instincts for older kids are, so I more regularly give them activities that are over their heads.  I’ve fumbled around more than I’d like with giving my 3rd graders problems that challenge them but don’t make them want to give up.  On Friday and today, however, I gave them a problem that was VERY hard – and they are loving it!  I’m very proud of this success, so I thought I’d analyze how it worked (and bask in my pride by sharing it).

It was my co-teacher’s idea to give them this assignment.  If it had just been me, I wouldn’t have done it – because I honestly thought it was too hard.  This puzzle was very nearly too hard for me to solve when I first saw it (or, at least, I had a lot of trouble convincing myself that I could actually do it before I truly started working).  Many (most?) people have the same reaction that I did when I first saw this puzzle – serious anxiety, extreme confusion, and the thought, “This is impossible!”

What is it?  It’s what we at Saint Ann’s call The Alien Code.  I honestly don’t know much about its history and use, but I think it’s a message that we sent into space years ago with the hopes of communicating with sentient aliens.

If you want a very difficult, but eventually very satisfying, puzzle-solving experience, try your hand at cracking The Alien Code here.  (This isn’t the exact version that we gave our 3rd graders, but I believe it has the same content, just with simpler symbols.  I unfortunately can’t find that code at the moment.)  (UPDATE: I can’t find a full copy of any version of the code
!  The link I originally used no longer exists!  Here’s a picture of the first page.  If anyone can find the whole code, please let me know!)  But before you try, you might want to read what we told our 3rd graders, and what I think sold them on the project and helped them believe that they could crack it.

The point we strongly emphasized before we gave them the code was that, in working to crack this code, they were on an equal playing-field with any aliens who could potentially crack it, too.  None of the symbols are remotely familiar.  But they deal with ideas that (we hope, especially as mathematicians) are universal.  Hint, hint.

This statement rang bells with our 3rd graders at least in part because our curriculum emphasizes the development of ways of communicating quantity in human history.  We began the year by teaching them the “Ba-Na-Na” counting-system, used by entirely fictional cavemen in ancient times, in which a single Na signifies 1, Na-Na is 2, Na-Na-Na is 3, Ba is 4, Ba-Na is 5, etc.  As we grappled with communicating large numbers in this system, we discussed how and why our own base-10 system came into being.  We also learned about the ancient Egyptian number system, using this as an example of a system in which addition “feels” like addition (a wonderful phrase my co-teacher uses frequently), but the beautiful, simple addition “dance” (again, his term) we do with place-value isn’t possible.  (I take no credit for this wonderfully humanistic 3rd grade mathematics curriculum, but I am a very strong advocate of it.  All of our students – from the arithmetic whizzes to the book-worms to the dreamy doodlers – found it engaging, and I think everyone came away with a real appreciation for our numbers.)

By emphasizing that in working on this code, the students were aliens, we conveyed to them that cracking this code was going to be ridiculously hard – imagine you’re an alien receiving this message! – but completely do-able, because it conveys an idea common to all intelligent beings.  This made the kids feel challenged, but empowered.

We also told them about our own experiences with the code.  I said, with complete honesty, that I was convinced I couldn’t crack the code the first time I saw it.  My co-teacher echoed the sentiment.  But, we said, we did it!  And it felt great!

Armed with the knowledge that they were in for a crazy ride, but that two people they respected and related to had made it through and that they had the power to crack it simply by being human, our 3rd graders took to the code with awesome enthusiasm.  They’ve made it through about half of the first page.  After two days.  And they’re still pumped.  Not a single student has given up yet.

Hey, you’re human, too.  Want to give it a try?

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