Creativity for control freaks

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Peter Greaves shows how teachers can let go without losing it. This week:

Caught in the riddle

A man lives on the 20th floor of a building. Every day he gets out of the lift at the 17th floor and walks up the last 3 floors. Why?

I have burned on my brain images of teaching practice, where I had organised a "states of matter" day - a circus of activities for solid, liquid and gas, with explosions, demolition and whirlpools, for pupils of all learning styles and none. As Billy walked down the path I heard his dad say to him, "So how was school?"


"What did you do today?"

"You know, the usual stuff."

After going through a few changes of state myself, I realised the problem wasn't "the usual stuff". it was the "you know". No way could parents know what was going on if pupils weren't providing that take-home element. How could I encourage some dialogue with my pupils' parents to bring them aboard this partnership?

A woman is driving a car with no headlights during a power cut. All the street lamps are off. A cat runs out in front of her and she screeches to a halt. How did she see it?

One answer is riddles. They come with a health warning because parents come to love and loathe them. It began with, "A farmer has twenty sick sheep.

Five die. How many are left?" Easy to read, but say it out loud and "twenty sick sheep" becomes "twenty-six sheep" so when the answer "21" is declared wrong, there is confusion. I repeated it once a day, getting slower until after about a week, the sounds became more separated and one pupil got it.

In eureka mode, they shouted the answer and the room became a buzz of explanation. And so it started.

A cowboy leaves on Friday, stays away for two days and two nights and comes back on Friday. How does he do this?

I now sponge riddles from a colleague who has turned it into a fine art. He recently received a letter from a parent who asked why he couldn't just concentrate on SATs so she didn't have to suffer the humiliation of having riddles explained to her by her extended family. Beyond the riddles is a developing trust between school and families on which much can be built.

More parents end up in school, more informed questions are asked and pupils have something to start conversations about school life. Riddles are one way to get the message home, raising expectations of teachers and the experience pupils are being given.

A robber carrying three precious diamonds gets to a rickety bridge over a river. He knows that the combined weight of him and the three diamonds will cause the bridge to collapse. It's too far to throw them and he has no time to leave one behind and return for it. How does he get all three across?

For the answers to all these, "Work it out!"

Peter Greaves teaches at Dovelands Primary School in Leicester. Write to

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