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Tips for Imaginative Educators #7: Identify Mysteries

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Everyone loves a puzzle.

Imaginative educators pull their students in; they intrigue them. They puzzle them. Of course, leaving students puzzling doesn’t mean leaving them utterly confused. By "puzzling" I mean capturing students’ curiosity. Mystery intrigues us; it evokes emotion and imagination. An imaginative educator will model how learning about the world requires an inquiring spirit and a willingness to explore unfamiliar terrain. 


Dr. Kieran Egan suggests that one of the worst (aka:  imagination-dulling) things we can do in schools is present the curriculum topics we are teaching as fully “known”. (e.g. “Look students! Here is all you need to know about cell biology!” or “Here is Algebra—learn this and you know it all!”) Rather, we should present the world—and all our curriculum topics—as part of a great mystery and adventure.  We should identify the unknown. The sense of mystery–like other cognitive tools described in our Tools of Imagination Series–is a powerful support for learning.

The world is full of unanswered questions and puzzles. 

Engage the sense of mystery tool by bringing to your students’ attention the unknown or unexplained dimensions of whatever you are teaching. All the topics we are teaching have “puzzling” aspects—there are features of all topics in the world that even the experts can’t explain. What mysteries surround the topics of animal migration and animal adaptation? What do top scientists not know?  What mysteries surround the creation of different alphabets or number systems?  What do top mathematicians not know? BBC iwonder is a wonderful on-line resource that “feeds curiosity” by introducing great mysteries of the world in engaging ways—I constantly use this site in my planning.


Puzzles Perplex and Please

Puzzles are powerful learning tools—there is something pleasing in the “game”, in the “solving”—they provide a sense of pleasing closure. So if you can use actual, solvable puzzles in your teaching that’s great. For example, young students can “solve the mystery” of “shifty shadows” as they learn about the Earth’s rotation. They can “solve the puzzle” of the missing puddles as they learn about evaporation or the water cycle.  Students in Mathematics can learn how different card tricks or illusions can be explained by mathematical equations. (Visit Dr. Peter Liljedahl’s website for great resources, tricks and puzzles for teachers!) In History—as well as other topics—“clues” can provide insights into historical events but can also open up great questions. Older students might puzzle why is it that, in the Northern Hemisphere the winds in an anticyclone (high pressure front) blow clockwise and counter-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere? While Geography teachers can explain this phenomena to their students, they should also introduce unanswered questions. 

Seek out questions in your subject matter that even the experts can’t answer. Bring in those questions.  Something I recently discovered: Did you know that despite all we know about how tornados “work”, even top scientists can’t definitively explain their origin?

Enjoy this more detailed example of how the sense of mystery cognitive tool can be employed in a Math unit on linear measurement.  Thank you Carley Brockway for sharing! Brockway-Ma9-MyteriesPuzzles.docx

Puzzle on imaginative educators!

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Gillian Judson (@perfinker) teaches/writes/researches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in B.C., Canada, co-directs the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), and coordinates Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) research and practice. Her work is primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning.  She also investigates how an ecological and imaginative approach to education can both increase students’ engagement with, and understanding of, the content of the curriculum but can show it in a light that can lead to a sophisticated ecological consciousness. 

Gillian writes on a range of educatonal topics but especially about imagination, creativity, wonder, story, and ecological/place-based teaching practices. She is author of the books Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies For Teaching (Pacific Educational Press, 2015) and A New Approach to Ecological Education:  Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York:  Peter Lang; 2010). She most recently co-authored a book called Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (New York: Teachers’ College Press; in press). 

She has also edited the book Teaching 360°: Effective Learning Through The Imagination (Rotterdam: Sense Publishing, 2008) and co-edited the books Engaging Imagination and Developing Creativity in Education (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press; 2015) and Wonder-Full Education:  The Centrality of Wonder (New York: Routledge; 2013).

She started a blog in 2016. Learn all about imagination-focused practices (K-post secondary) at imaginED: education that inspires.

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