Mystery in the Classroom

Bill_Bixby_The_Magician_1973Humans love mystery. It can be frustrating one moment (where are my keys?!), and great fun the next (just one more chapter…). We subject ourselves to mystery willfully for the pleasure it brings us, whether it be in the form of fiction, riddles, or magic. As you’ve doubtlessly noticed, the minds of children are especially attuned to wonder and mystery. This is partly due to the understanding and wisdom–and sometimes, cynicism–that comes with adulthood. But a child’s sense of wonder and love of mystery shouldn’t be interpreted as simplistic. In fact, children can outperform us as sleuths in some respects, and it’s not because they simply have more energy.

We already know that children’s minds are sponge-like when learning languages and music. But it may surprise you that they are also better at discovering the mechanisms of sleight-of-hand magic tricks. In an interview on the Freakonomics blog promoting his recent book, Fooling Houdini, magician and author Alex Stone touches on the difficulty of fooling children. Explaining why children are a difficult audience for magic, Stone had this to say:

“Part of it may have to do with the way children pay attention. As adults, we’re very good at focusing on one thing while ignoring subsidiary distractions. This is great for getting stuff done, but it also makes you susceptible to misdirection, because magicians are good at getting you to train the spotlight of your attention on one thing—the wrong thing—while doing something tricky in the shadows.”

Stone is a controversial figure in the world of magic, due to his love of disclosing the science and psychology behind famous tricks. In particular, he loves challenging classrooms full of students to determine how his illusions work. Oddly, it’s the adults who usually need a hint or a helping hand, while the children often deduce his techniques. Mind you, these are techniques they’ve never encountered before.

According to Stone, “Kids… tend to focus on more than one thing at a time—their attention is more diffuse—which may make them harder to fool. Moreover, kids are relatively free of assumptions and expectations about how the world works, and magic is all about turning your assumptions and expectations against you.”

Next time you’re strapped for ideas, or looking to inject some variety into your routine, try adding an element of mystery to your day’s lesson. The same principles that keep you turning pages or watching excessive episodes can engage your students. You may surprised that some of your students find solving mysteries…elementary.

Here are a few ideas:

Post a daily riddle. 

There are all sorts of puzzles and riddles activities on A riddle or word puzzle on the board will require no explanation or prompting for many students to begin solving on their own. These word cryptos are great bite-sized mysteries to tickle the intellect. Incentivizng the completion of crytpos within a time limit is a great way to encourage competition against the self, while still allowing students of different capabilities to work at their own paces.

Discuss a historical mystery.

Discussing a mystery from history can infuse almost any subject with intrigue. Take advantage of our materials on Stonehenge, an ancient site whose purpose remains mysterious. Perhaps you could discuss the myth of Atlantis, and why some people maintain that it is a real place. Here’s a brief article on the vanished colony of Roanoke–one of early America’s favorite mysteries.

Read a short mystery together.

Whether it’s a classic like a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery, or something newer and edgier, kids love a good mystery. Reading a mystery by chapter, while discussing character motivation and plot in between, can use suspense for the causes of reading comprehension and analysis.

Discuss a scam or con and discuss how it functions.

Con men and scammers can teach us a lot if we take the time to study them. Our experience is that students enjoy talking about unsavory characters. Whether you’re talking about snake oil peddlers, fortune tellers, or card tricks, dissecting how a deception functions is a great critical thinking activity–and it can be a good safeguard against getting swindled!

Have a small magic show. 

Have your students learn a simple magic trick and present it. Then discuss WHY each of the tricks fools the brain.

Have a magician visit. Make sure he/she understands that you’re teaching critical thinking and your plan to speculate about their methods. 

Your students might just blow your mind with their critical appraisal of even well-performed sleight-of-hand. If you can find someone willing to do some tricks (a staff member is often the best option) for your students who doesn’t mind eventually revealing his/her methods, the sense of discovery and empowerment among your class will be palpable.

Do you have any great ideas for bringing mystery to your classroom? We’d love to hear them. Tell us your secrets on Facebook or in the Comments section.

Posted by Greg Teachout, abcteach Team

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