Sunday, November 22, 2015

Teaching (and Learning) Grit by Having Students Solve the Rubik's Cube

It all started when my 17-year-old son came home from his summer teen tour and had some much needed down time. The normal teenager would probably just sleep or watch videos, but AJ decided he wanted to solve the Rubik's Cube. I remember playing with one as a child and could get one face complete pretty easily. But in "those days," the directions were all on a folded piece of paper (the horror!), and I did not have the GRIT needed back least not with this puzzle. But he watched a video over and over again, and by the next day, he had it down. (As I am writing this, I hear the clicks from him solving his's a good "brain break" for him between homework assignments.)

Over same summer, I was planning for my new Problem Solving Seminar, and I thought I would make solving the Rubik's cube an assignment for the class around Thanksgiving. I thought it would be a good time for kids to practice...and perhaps get encouragement from their families over break. I decided I would have them watch the video my son learned from, and I would facilitate, but that I did not have to really solve it...after all, it was an assignment for them, and maybe I didn't really have to (gulp) solve it?! It felt really daunting to me, and yet, I knew my kids could do it. I just didn't necessarily want to--which I know does not make a whole lot of sense right now...but it somehow did to me then.
I asked the bookstore to stock Rubik's cubes...the only thing they needed to purchase for the course, and after avoiding lots of "when are we going to solve the Rubik's cube?" questions, we finally watched the above video together last week. I broke down the first few steps as such:
  • The white cross on top with yellow in the middle
  • The white cross flipped to the bottom with white in the middle and a partial matching T
  • The entire white face with one full layer (top) complete
  • The entire second layer complete
As we were watching the video and pausing A LOT, I noticed that many of the students were having trouble visualizing. Ironically, one of the top students in the class could not follow the directions at all at first. But most kids were still very interested...solving the Rubik's Cube is like a fun party trick to pull out-out of nowhere, so most were determined. Some asked me to share the video via Classroom Google, so they could watch at their own pace, which I did.

Oddly, I was able to see how to do the first three of the four steps, above, pretty easily. I say oddly because my spatial reasoning is my weak point as a math teacher. You could spin me around in my own driveway, and I will get lost. But I guess having played around with the cube a lot as a kid, I could do these steps fairly quickly. So once I realized my kids needed help, and I could help them, I started to want to solve it myself. But it was not until then that I felt the need to solve it. They needed my help in explaining it, and that I could do. But I didn't know how far I could get...that second layer blew my mind.

Then luck happened. I got an email from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) highlighting an article about Dan Van der Vieren (known to students as Mr. VDV), a teacher who wrote his undergrad thesis on the Rubik's cube. I immediately followed him on twitter and asked if he was willing to skype with my class...and he said yes! And then the magic happened.

Via skype, and with pictures like the one to the left, he showed us how to get the entire second layer complete. This involved an algorithm. My students struggled through this (as did I), making mistakes and having to redo it all over again, but once they finally got it on their own the texts with pictures started pouring in...on a Saturday night?! And it coincided with me getting that layer complete as well. We felt so accomplished!

Mr. VDV, is skyping with us again on Wednesday (the day before Thanksgiving break) to get us to the next stage. This, more than anything else that I have ever taught, is teaching the kids tenacity and grit and stick-to-it-tiveness. I do have a student who wants to give up. I hope more than anything else, I can encourage him to stick with it and solve it. He will learn more from that, I think than anything he has learned in my class. If he learns how to do it, which will come not only from my helping him but also from his willingness to learn from his mistakes, I will feel like I have done my job.

Mr. VDV has tweeted with me regularly, sharing pictures like these to help me help my students--so incredible. I am so thankful to him...funny this is the case right around Thanksgiving.
Lastly, Mr. VDV has told me that his class has made mosaics with Rubik's Cubes, and now, of course, we HAVE to do semester. I can't wait. He told me to register at, which I did, and someone got back to me Sunday morning! They will ship all the cubes to you for the mosaic making; all we have to do is pay for shipping back. 
I am looking forward to my post when we actually create this. Another challenge, Mr. VDV told me, is to make our school logo as a mosaic. There is an app for that! The possibilities are endless.

I am not there yet...I haven't solved the puzzle fully. I'm 2/3 done, but I can do the entire 2/3 from Thanksgiving break, I hope to have it fully done, along with the rest of the students in my class. I finally am learning about the grit I have been talking about to my class. And it feels great.


  1. This is fantastic!! Now you've made me want to solve it.
    Thank you!

  2. Nice post! Well done for perseverance! Grit is a very important character trait that needs to be nourished in students. “Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.” — Angela Duckworth, "Grit" (from

  3. To get started, I recommend reading the basic cubing terminology and becoming familiar with the Rubik's Cube notation, which explains what the letters in the algorithms mean: F stands for front, R stands for right, U stands for up, L stands for left, and D stands for down. I'm not sure if this  formula works or not, but a friend told me about it. towingbee company

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