The Joy of Sudoku

During my recent bout of COVID, I spent a great deal of time laying in bed, feeling rather exhausted and uninterested in doing much of anything but sleep. As many of us do when bedridden, I looked through my social media accounts, random apps, and Spotify playlists – anything to help pass the time. In doing so, I came across a Sudoku app that I had installed on my phone at some point, which has largely sat unforgotten until now. For the curious, my go-to Sudoku app is currently Logic Wiz. It is available on both Google Play and the Apple App Store.

For those that don’t know, Sudoku is a deceptively simple logic puzzle. The goal is to fill a 9×9 grid so that each row, column, and 3×3 subgrid contains all digits from 1 – 9. In doing so, the numbers can’t repeat within each subgrid or across a row or column. To my unassuming mind, it seemed like an easy way to pass the time. The puzzles come in a variety of difficulty levels and don’t seem particularly complex. Man, was I wrong.

While browsing YouTube, I discovered Robin the Sudoku Guy‘s channel. At the time of writing this post, he had uploaded 98 Sudoku tutorials. It seems that he’s doing quite well, as Robin also is 28 lessons deep into a kid-friendly version of his tutorials that he says are great for students, teachers, etc. Naturally, I was curious to learn more from this Sudoku sage. If anything, I just wanted to know how many tutorials could it possibly take to learn how to play Sudoku?

It turns out that Sudoku can be an incredibly complex matter.

Robin’s tutorials begin with more intuitive things that many of us might have picked up from playing Sudoku over the years: eyeballing the grid to see what numbers could go where, eliminating certain options, etc. That, however, is barely scratching the surface of Sudoku strategy. The more complex end of Sudoku strategy introduces concepts like X-wings, swordfish, and it honestly gets more insane from there. I really like how the Sudoku wiki breaks each of the 39 techniques down by level of difficulty.

Complex games and puzzles aren’t new to me by any means. Most folks know that there are hundreds of strategies that one could employ during a chess match at any given stage of the game. Some folks know that a 3×3 Rubik’s cube has 43 quintillion possible combinations. There’s something delightful about the simplicity of the digits 1-9 and a partially-filled grid that makes Sudoku such an enticing experience. There’s a lesson to be learned about the broader beauty of logic and math that we try so hard to instill in our students.

For now, I’m happy to have a go at the puzzles that others create. I might try setting my own one day, but I suspect that puzzle crafting can become even more of a tempting rabbit hole as solving the puzzles themselves. LaTeX naturally has a package for just about everything, including a sudoku package that can convert plain text into a Sudoku grid. For those who prefer a WYSIWYG option, F-puzzles is a website that came highly recommended on the Sudoku subreddit.

To connect this all back to teaching, something that I often think about as a special education teacher in an algebra classroom is doing my best to meet the needs of my mixed-ability students. Differentiation, scaffolds, and entry points are important to keep in mind, but my students will all ultimately take the same algebra Regents exam in June. I do believe that teaching logic and reasoning in math is just as important as the algebraic concepts themselves, and I hope that I can incorporate more Sudoku into my classroom routine as an occasional enrichment activity for students. I’m currently flushing out an idea for an enrichment menu that I can post in my classroom, and I look forward to seeing how it’s received by students and my co-teacher.

On a whim, I logged into the Hunter College library catalog to see if a quick search would turn up any interesting hits about Sudoku or logic puzzles in general. I came across an essay that was published by a medical student in a 2021 issue of The International Journal of Psychiatry.

In this essay, Vigliotti described her experiences getting to know Gary, a patient that she was assigned to during her third year medical school rotations. While Gary initially came off as quite the curmudgeon, Vigliotti gradually fostered a positive relationship with Gary after realizing that he enjoyed completed Sudoku puzzles. She shared a Sudoku book with Gary that was purchased at the hospital gift shop, a small gesture that led to more substantial and deeper conversations.

Oncology is worlds apart from teaching, but there’s something about the dynamic between Vigliotti and Gary that I think many teachers can relate to. We all want to connect with and develop a positive relationship with our students. Sometimes the smallest of gestures, like sharing a book of Sudoku puzzles, can be the spark that gets a student to open up or feel more comfortable in our schools and classrooms.

While my run-in with COVID was fairly uneventful, it did lead to me re-discovering Sudoku. Like Vigliotti and Gary, I hope that I too can share the joy of Sudoku with a students at my school. Perhaps one of them will end up competing in the World Sudoku Championships one day.

References

Vigliotti, A. A. (2021). The gift of sudoku. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine56(3), 161–165. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091217420985969

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