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Disciplines > Teaching > Techniques > Mysteries

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Start the lesson with a mystery story. Then solve the mystery through the lesson.

Start with a hook, to grab their attention, then add more detail to deepen the mystery and draw them in.

Keep it fairly short. Frame it as a real puzzle and use language that ensures everyone 'gets' the puzzle and has a good chance to experience the thrill of bafflement. Talk as if you are also confused.

Look for the frowns that indicate puzzlement. Students may talk with one another, asking if they know the answer. Use this to reinforce the mystery. 'Yes, it's rather baffling, isn't it?'

Then start to reveal the answer, perhaps a bit at a time. Give information that indicates alternative solutions, then show that these are not satisfactory. Offer clues along the way, so they keep guessing at the solution. Finally lead them to the real solution.

An ideal lesson ends with everyone 'getting it' almost at the end of the allotted period. Lead them towards the answer by asking questions and revealing information to them a bit at a time. Sustain the tension until the final 'eureka' point.


There was once a young girl who lived happily in New York. That is, until she was brutally murdered in a sequence of frenzied beatings and stabbings. This is not a 'whodunnit': there were 22 separate witnesses. The real mystery is that none of them tried to help her, despite her terrified screams for support. Not one of them even called the police.


A mystery is something that seems likely to have a solution, but there is typically insufficient information available to come to any final conclusions, although the audience may make vague guesses.

Solving a mystery is an 'aha' moment. This becomes more powerful when it is preceded by the 'huh??' of wondering, where the desire to know leads the 'aha' to a more satisfying closure. Ordinary lessons require attention; mysteries demand explanation.

Teachers often are so fascinated by their subject that they forget that students may find it boring or difficult. Mysteries help to bring a topic to life, making it exciting and interesting, especially if they are told in an engaging way.

Storytelling is an ancient and proven powerful method of engaging an audience. Something to note is that stories motivate the storyteller as well as the audience. It is more fun telling stories than explaining facts. And an enthused teacher is more effective than a committed teacher.

See also

Storytelling, Tension principle, Closure principle


Cialdini, R.B. (2005). What is the best device for engaging student interest? The answer is in the title. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 1, 22-29


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