The Jigsaw Analogy for Learning

With screen time at a premium, many isolated folk are turning to analogue games and puzzles for whiling time.

In this spirit, Sunday afternoon saw my much better half break out an old jigsaw puzzle. It covered the table with haystacks of colour, promising the fruity mise en scene of a greengrocer stall.

One corner of the box had been nibbled by a naughty puppy some years ago, a crime undiscovered and unremembered.

Undeterred and risking futile pursuit, unwilling to account for all one thousand pieces, we launched into the fray. Sometimes knowing the ending prevents beginning.

Five days later, the image was complete. Well, almost complete – two pieces we assume were destroyed by the aforementioned pooch and one was retrieved, half chewed, some time on the morning of the third day.

There was no small sense of achievement and pride as we celebrated the finish. So much so, it rested on the table for most of the afternoon.

A mandala we were reluctant to destroy.

The thing is, the effort of completion felt akin to the effort of mastery or learning anything.

This is where the jigsaw analogy for learning emerged.

The success criteria were right there on the front of the box – aside from the nibbled corner which became a mythical, unmapped section of mixed fruit until near the very end.

The entire image displayed a typical market fruit stall. Boxes lay side by side in rows, bursting with varied shade and colour. Bunches of bananas were placed around like red herring, and there were two boxes of maddening kiwifruit. A few boxes shared an orange yellow similarity – peaches, nectarines, apples. So familiar, yet so challenging.

The initial strategy involved finding the edges and making a frame, interspersed with wild matching and turning pieces madly, comparing shades of colour in a frenzy of deductive trial and error.

The week progressed with frequent periods of deep focus and flow. There were times of desperation, fatigue, hope, mania and false confidence. There were minor victories with the plums and endless frustration with aged grapes and peaches.

It took an entire day to solve the banana issue, while apples and pears of every shade and hue kept us working late into the evening.

Over the last two days we declared it would finish that day, only to be defeated by the size of the task. By then, eyes for colour were finely calibrated.

Jigsaw edges and images of fruit invaded our dreams.

Sometimes we found matches elusive no matter how hard we looked. The addictive mantra of ‘just one piece’ rang out across the kitchen table.

Fed up, exhausted, we’d retreat into other chores and entertainments.

Often as not, a return to the table would see a rat-a-tat-tat series of matches – eyes and fingers blessed by almost divine power.

As the end neared, industrial efficiency blessed our endeavours. We sat like indentured workers, brows furrowed with the determination to finish so we could eat dinner at the table again, or at least clear pet hair and dust from underneath.

Grim satisfaction ruled our faces as the number of unclaimed pieces dwindled and the blank spaces shrank. One box of kiwifruit became complete, then a box of apples. The peaches gave up their defiant struggle. The finish line drifted into view.

Mastery of the puzzle, or as near to mastery as a nibbly puppy allowed, provided a sense of quiet triumph and achievement.

Many times over five days did the analogous relationship between completing a jigsaw puzzle and learning anything at all cross my mind.

For within that five day journey, so many learning strategies and dispositions became visible.

Trial and error. Hypothesis. Failure. Persistence. Comparison and Contrast. Memory. Making connections. Triumph. False peaks. Disappointment. Self assessment. Peer assessment. Flow. Distraction. Pride. Satisfaction. Wishing pieces fit even when they didn’t. Thinking about making them fit anyway we could.

We had success criteria – the image on the box, and a learning intention, to avoid the despair of living a life of isolation in front of a screen. The challenge was hard enough to keep us engaged, without being impossible. Little wins along the way kept us motivated to finish, complimented by stubborn resolve.

Look, this analogy needs refinement for sure, but there is enough to begin with. Maybe it is a box full of interconnected pieces, mixed up on the table, but it offers somewhere to begin.

Europe Divided into its Kingdoms (1766) by John Spilsbury

And perhaps that is what John Spilsbury, credited for making jigsaw puzzles a thing around 1760, intended. His puzzle, ‘Europe divided into its kingdoms’ (1766) is believed to be the first purpose built jigsaw ever produced for sale. According to Wikipedia, whose emblem is coincidentally an incomplete globe constructed of jigsaw pieces, Spilsbury created puzzles for educational purposes, calling them ‘dissected maps’.

Perhaps then, rather than view learning and progress as linear process, sequential and predictable, the analogy of the jigsaw offers a better one.

Next week, a canal scene provides another opportunity for exploring the analogy.

Published by charliehynes76

Learner. Teacher. Writer. My aim is to nourish and share a curious mind so that we might honour the gift.

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