In the rush to cover standards and ensure students have learned the concepts they will need in the future, it’s easy to lose sight of how fun math can be. These three TED-Ed videos offer fun, challenging riddles that can also be explicitly connected to mathematical concepts. The “Prisoner Box” problem is essentially a loop and could be a high-interest way to dive into this topic.

In this next puzzle, viewers are cast as intrepid secret spies, tasked with deactivating a death ray. It’s also an interesting introduction to visual models and graph theory. The answer explanation starts at 1:04 in the video.

Who can resist trying to solve a brain teaser that Albert Einstein supposedly wrote?  This problem seems pretty complicated at first, but it could be a great way to give students an opportunity to sift through the information given and start making sense of it. The video explicitly talks about some effective problem solving strategies like trial and error that can help students develop their logical intuition. And, while this is a silly problem about a stolen fish, multiple variable equations require a similar type of logic.


  • Tori Olivarez

    Children’s competence in math isn’t solely due to a lack of motivation but rather lack of understanding as well. Although these videos can seem fun and enjoyable, we need to focus on ensuring that the teachers truly understand the concepts they’re asked to teach in order for children to learn increasingly difficult concepts (Skemp, 1962). Teachers lack the deeper understanding of concepts they’re going to teach ((Floden & Meniketti, 2005; Wilson et al, 2001)), and this leads to the issue of American students not fully comprehending what they’re being taught in class. It’s not a matter of our teachers being awful at math, but rather not taking enough actual math courses that improve their conceptual understanding (Schmidt et al, 2012). Children are therefore unable to make connections or comprehend why a procedure or rule applies when it does. More emphasis is placed on teachers learning how to teach rather than improving their knowledge of the concept or subject they’re going to be teaching.
    Moreover, videos and games aren’t guaranteed to be effective in motivating children because once tests and assessments are put in place videos are no longer there to make it fun and extrinsic rewards given within the games are gone as well (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2007). Incorporating more examples or fun videos isn’t necessarily going to improve understanding of a concept when they aren’t really sure of what they’re learning in the first place. Giving students riddles involving a concept that they don’t fundamentally understand makes it hard to imagine they’ll truly benefit. Many studies support the use of educational electronic games, but methodologies are often flawed and tend to cause researchers to be skeptical (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2005). In all, while educational videos, games, or riddles may appear motivating to students and help them understand concepts little research points to true their effectiveness in both motivation and competence. Motivation isn’t the underlying issue. It’s making sure our educators have true conceptual knowledge of the information they’re teaching. Would you take tennis lessons from an instructor who doesn’t have conceptual knowledge of the game?

    • Andy Harsin

      Well said and enlightening. I doubt that the issues you mention will be effectively addressed until teachers are paid and treated like the professionals they are (or should be).

  • cristy

    This is a great article to read. Very enlightening online tutorial

  • James


    I made an interactive version of the Einstein’s Riddle that can be played on a computer/tablet. I think it’s a great way to stimulate kids to solve the problem. If you want to try:


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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