Dick Jones, Center Specialist, May 2021

Like many people during the isolation of the pandemic, puzzleI spent time assembling puzzles. My wife thinks puzzles are boring, but I enjoy the challenge of putting the pieces together correctly to form a beautiful picture. It is the challenge of finding the best way to approach possible assembly that is so satisfying. The traditional process starts with the edges and then assembling clearly defined images and ultimately piecing together all of the background.

There are other strategies as well that you figure out along the way to solve the problematic portions of the puzzle, sorting by shape and color shades. To me, it is certainly not boring - the challenge engages me. Some lessons can be learned from puzzle building applied to CTE teachers and making CTE instruction consistently engaging for students.

There are parallels between puzzle construction and teaching and learning in general. Teaching can be described as putting the pieces of the puzzle together. For, CTE instructors planning instruction is a puzzle with so many essential technical skills for students to learn and so little time. Students have different abilities, different prior experiences, and need time to develop proficiency. The effort required to retain these technical tasks can seem boring to some. Yet, the application of skill and problem-solving imparts a great sense of satisfaction for a worker in completing that beautiful result.

My approach to puzzle construction is engaging, but a linear could be very dull. A linear process is testing one piece against every other 500 pieces, trying to find the correct fit by trial and error. Then testing the same 498 against the next piece and so on. All of this would work to complete the puzzle. But, a linear approach would require over a half-million tasks to complete – indeed a tedious task.

When teaching becomes linear, it becomes boring. Linear learning defines each of the different skills, and practicing each one at a time in the promise you will use later on. In some ways, standards-based instruction characterized in the Common Core curriculum encourages this linear approach. Even if there are many pieces of learning, they not be taught one at a time. CTE, while it has lists of complex skills and knowledge, students are not learning in a rigid linear fashion but focusing on a finished product in acquiring the skills and procedures to complete that product. Good CTE instruction needs to resist ever becoming a linear approach to learning even as we embrace more explicit standards and required assessments.

Following are three strategies for engaging CTE instruction based on the puzzle metaphor.

Remind students of the finished product. One of the things that make CTE learning so engaging to students is that they have a clear vision have a finished product such as a lovely, nutritious meal, a hairstyle, a functional computer network. Puzzle building can become tedious without a picture of the finished product. Frequently examining that finished image helps to reinforce the patient work necessary to complete the puzzle. Likewise, in CTE, students need to be continually reminded of the building they're constructing or the animation they are creating. Sometimes applying new skills to reach proficiency is tedious and frustrating, whether it is troubleshooting a computer network or welding a metal frame. Acquiring technical skills takes patience and practice, and "keeping an eye on the prize" helps to ensure perseverance and persistence toward proficiency.

Let students make choices in working to the finished goal. There are many ways to construct a puzzle, and along the way, each person can develop their own strategy. There is still only one way the puzzle pieces fit, But there can be flexibility in how those pieces are constructed. If there was only one way to assemble a puzzle, such as sequentially trying every piece against one specific piece until the right one is found, it would be a boring routine. In CTE, there is usually a single solution to a finished product, but giving students options to put steps and the procedure can make the learning task more engaging and exciting.

Encourage patience with frequent compliments focusing on the positive. When building a puzzle with a partner, there are many opportunities to compliment one another when finding a missing piece or finishing a portion of an object. These compliments reinforce one another and strengthen the resolve to complete the puzzle. In CTE instruction, it is the teacher who is the constant coach to provide frequent compliments focusing on improvement that can inspire students to develop proficiency in their skills.

Keep this analogy of puzzle building as you continue to assemble your puzzle of engaging each student in high quarry CTE.