Teaching Through Mystery | exSTEMsions

Teaching Through Mystery

The joy of mysteries

I love a good mystery. I grew up in a household that was (and still is) deeply attached to the mystery novel. My earliest reading memories are of my dear friends Cam Jansen and Encyclopedia Brown. For me, one of the best things about a mystery story is the suspense that’s built as you progress through the story, hoping that the hero figures everything out, while also following the clues yourself, and seeing if you can be quicker than the hero!  The joy of watching a mystery unfold, and slowly solving it for yourself, is something we can apply to learning with our kids.

Learn through mystery

When I think about how mystery might apply to learning, I think of asking our kids to follow clues, and puzzles that lead them to next steps in a problem or game, and scavenger hunts - just to name a few. The many things that make mystery stories so appealing can also create a sense of excitement in the learning experiences we design for our children. Are there clues to follow?  Are their twists and turns (and maybe restarts) along the way? The one key idea to keep in mind is that the difference between reading a mystery story and learning through mystery is that in learning, your child gets to be the hero! What kid (or adult…) doesn’t want to be the one to solve the puzzle, follow the trail, or find the secret? All I have to say in my house is “I bet you can’t figure out…” and pretty much anything I say next has their attention.

Why bother with mysteries?

Creating opportunities for our children to learn through mystery might take a little creativity, and a little extra work. We all know everything in life can’t be a mystery, but it’s a nice tool to employ when the time is right. But why? Why would we want to learn and teach like this? Well, for starters, it’s just fun. Think back to the scavenger hunts you might have participated in as a kid, consider the games you played with friends, or maybe you’ve been in an escape room… if you’re into mystery, these things are all great fun. But learning in these ways is way more than just fun; having your child learn something new by following clues, or hunting for objects, or brainstorming different solutions to progress in a challenge, helps them to build vital problem-solving and critical thinking skills. They have to observe the world around them. They have to gather information, analyze and evaluate what they find, and then decide how to move forward. Kids have to use things that they already know, in concert with new information (synthesis!) to formulate plans, test hypotheses, and understand results. All of these skills are hugely important and useful (think about the many and varied ways you gather, analyze, and apply information throughout your day). And the best part is that when children learn through mystery, we parents don’t have to say things like, “Now you should analyze the information you’ve gathered.” Saying this just won’t be necessary, because your excited kids will be too busy doing just what you want them to do, trying to figure out what the clues mean, and what to do next. Not only will your kids be engaged with learning, but they’ll be building skills that will benefit them not only in day-to-day life, and also in their schoolwork.

Make your own mystery!

Making a mystery makes learning more fun, but also richer, and more meaningful. And it doesn’t have to be a huge ordeal. There are lots of ways to build scavenger hunts, or have your child follow clues to get to a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes you’ll find a problem with clues to follow built right in (like our current problem of the week). Other times, you can challenge your child to hunt for key pieces of information.  Another option is to create a “mystery box”, where kids have to answer (or ask) questions that help them figure out what’s hidden in the box… and maybe that box just holds a clue to something else! This is a great time to let your love of mystery fly, and your creative juices flow… the better the mystery, the more learning you’ll uncover!

Love mystery like we do? Follow this blog to find out other ways to turn what you love into learning! 

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