With this post I want to introduce an incredible individual, Marvin Hall, whose Halls of Learning organization is dedicated to empowering young learners through education. A former math teacher and lifelong lover of mind challenging puzzle play, Marvin has dedicated his life to creating innovating new learning opportunities for children in Jamaica.
Photography by Joanna Francis
The Halls of Learning Philosophy is beautifully articulated:
the cornerstone of problem-solving is creativity.
at the centre of creativity is imagination.
the food of imagination is play.
play is a path to creation.
what happens when we don’t play enough?
Marvin has been a fan of ThinkFun since our days as Binary Arts (the name changed to ThinkFun in 2004), and our retired Lunar Lockout holds a special place in his heart!
ThinkFun co-founder Andrea Barthello connected with Marvin (a TED Fellow) at a TED Conference last year, and since that time I’ve been honored to work with him and learn from the remarkable programs he has developed. As an introduction, here is an excerpt from an email Marvin shared with ThinkFun after his initial meeting with Andrea:
I am compelled to say again that during the exhilarating experience of TED, meeting you was more than a highlight for me….and I want you to know the story of where it all came from.
As a middle and high school Math teacher, I visited Singapore in May 2002 to attend a Math conference on a mission to discover the materials and methods that made their grade 7 & 8 students rank number 1 in the world in Mathematics (TIMSS 1995, 1999). At this conference was a booth displaying these fascinating problem solving, hands-on, puzzle type games I had never seen before. That was my introduction to Rush Hour, Lunar Lockout, 4 blue shapes that formed a pyramid, some wooden blocks that made a cube and a company named Binary Arts. I bought them all… and left Singapore excited by the prospect of their use in the classroom. I lamented the thought that these educational toys were only available in Singapore and looked to Google for clarification. To my delight, a search for Binary Arts led to page saying ‘we have changed our name to ThinkFun’ and it was a company in America that made all these great learning tools, and more.
In reality, the infrastructure in Jamaican schools was not ready for educational software… for even in the rare existence of a computer lab, computing time was dominated by ‘computer literacy’ courses….which were dominated by Microsoft office… and so the rare species of a computer-literate teacher could hardly get a chance to use the lab for another subject. This made non-computer-based, non-electrical learning games the most powerful innovation that could be taken into the classroom… and I was well stocked with that ammunition.
I simply loved that ThinkFun products were affordable and offered an alternative lower cost packaging for use in schools… it sent the message that educators were considered, and not simply the retail market. That said a lot about to me about your company values.
While I was still a teacher attached to a school, your products helped deliver some of the most fun Friday Math classes my children ever had. Watching them, while fading in and out of daydreams to build my own school, I had many thoughts of game/puzzle/problem solving based courses and my “Halls of Learning” advertisements saying things like “By the end of your child’s student life with us, s/he would have solved over 1000 puzzles”.
In 2003, I left the formal classroom to focus on Halls of Learning… and so it was during my tutoring sessions that I got the opportunity to better understand the effects and design the tactics of my puzzle toolbox.
Rush Hour was the starting point, going from beginner to expert… followed by progression through the more challenging Lunar Advance. Each child enjoyed marking their initials at every stage of progress and were keenly motivated by knowing how far they had advanced in relation other the “initials” I tutored. I used Rush Hour to develop their awareness as it related to systematically solving a problem, working backwards from the desired solution and how to connect it to solving equations. After becoming an experienced problem solver, Lunar Advance was a perfect primer to logic, and with my background in computer science, I couldn’t resist telling them how it related to essential programming concepts like the if-then-else and other conditional statements. Solving a Lunar Advance challenge was like moving your hands through an algorithm while you troubleshooted a procedure.
These were also deliberate tools in building confidence and self-esteem in weak or under-performing students… because in less than 5 minutes I had them thinking “Wow, I can do this,” and for those students, Rush Hour and all my puzzle assets became as important a part of their mathematical and mental development as any exercise from their textbook.
It was sometimes daunting to stay the course when parents who have hired an expensive Math tutor to improve their child’s grade, walked into the room and see their child “playing” with plastic cars and paper cards when they expected them to be doing a long list of math questions. But stubborn belief in a good idea beyond the doubt has been the staple of my dreams. To one day have a former student tell me, “Mr. Hall, I was doing a test and solving an equation, and I was doing it like Rush Hour… it just clicked in and I realized it’s what you were helping me to learn”. (This student was also a part of my first Lego Yuh Mind robotics workshop and is currently attending Boston College)
In 2006, I increased my ThinkFun artillery with Shape by Shape, Brick by Brick, River Crossing and Tip Over. This summer I introduced my 10 year old son, Jared, to Rush Hour… and he can’t wait to get to Lunar Advance.
7 years later, I am so proud to still have my tattered and worn Rush Hour teacher bag with its holes from history, and the history it holds.
7 years later, I am still so happy to have found the gift of these puzzles from the days of Binary Arts. They are like gifts that kept on giving…..giving confidence, giving problem solving skills and giving many Jamaican children the chance to develop their thinking in a way that school does not provide….and now they give to my son.
7 years later, getting to meet you was like meeting one of the heros of my Halls of Learning dreams.
I will continue to be among your happiest customers and look forward all the possibilities that ThinkFun will continue to offer.
This summer, Marvin launched a “Puzzle Yuh Brain” hands-on workshop using ThinkFun games! Participants solve puzzles and play games that develop their strengths in logic, deduction, systematic problem solving, reverse engineering, pattern recognition, strategic thinking and visual-spatial intelligence.
Check out more great photos here! Marvin will be sharing more details on the program which is up and running right now in Kingston, Jamaica!