Bad experiences with linear equations can brand algebra as the subject to hate. Many a middle-schooler has adopted this negative attitude during the early stages of exposure to algebra. As countless high school mathematics teachers will attest, changing this perception of algebra as being a “boring and difficult” subject is not easy. But solving linear equations need not be the doorway to mathematical doom and darkness. Repetition is certainly necessary to develop problem-solving skill, but the unexciting repetition that usually kills any interest in algebra can be presented as something fun and challenging. How this goal is achieved is limited only by the imagination of the teacher. A favorite for me is to present the activity of solving linear equations as a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle may be offered as an individual or a team challenge, depending on the objectives of the teacher.
Linear equation jigsaw puzzles are the game-players’ alternative to solving pages of equations. These puzzles take advantage of all the skill-developing attributes of puzzle building, but do this on top of developing algebraic problem-solving skills. Before the second piece of the puzzle can be laid, a linear equation must be solved. While some students may be hesitant to embrace the challenge of a page of linear equations begging solutions, few will back down from the chance to build a puzzle.
The rate at which the puzzle can be built is primarily determined by the speed at which the student can solve the linear equations. The linear equation jigsaw puzzle therefore has the potential to serve as an informal speed test, but teachers should be cautioned against using these puzzles for formal tests. Since jigsaw puzzle building depends on the hand-eye co-ordination and the spatial perception of the students, timed test results may be indicative of more than just the student’s ability to solve linear equations.