Friday, 23 May 2014

The history of Mysteries

For those of you who don't know, our collaborative learning program Digital Mysteries is based on a popular paper-based tool called Mysteries.

In this guest post, David Leat, who founded Mysteries and is now a Professor of Curriculum Innovation at Newcastle University, tells us the story behind them.

Professor David Leat
"When the Thinking Through Geography Group developed mysteries as a paper based activity, it quickly became apparent that there was something very interesting going on as students manipulated the little snippets of paper.  With friend and colleague Adam Nichols, we started taking pictures and videos of groups as they progressed through a mystery and we found recurring patterns in the arrangement of the paper.

Through playing back the video to the students and asking them about what was going on at crucial moments and linking this to our observations, we were able to describe some typical stages that many groups went through.  These are the basis of the stages in the current digital mysteries.  One of the interesting outcomes was the realisation that the stages represented increasing complexity and sophistication in thinking, moving from comprehension to classification (grouping) to more complex processes of hypothesising and evaluation.

If some groups got ‘stuck’, it suggested that they had reached a temporary plateau in their thinking.  So the intriguing question was – how could skilled teachers intervene and scaffold more sophisticated thinking and in effect move the students on?  This was diagnostic assessment but instead of being interpreted from written work after the event, when the underpinning thinking has long gone cold, it was in the moment when students’ thinking is still potentially plastic and malleable.

The problem then was that it was a minority of teachers who got it, and could interpret what they were seeing and hearing.  It is perhaps not surprising that many teachers found it hard to get away from the idea of a right answer.  In addition, one teacher is spread a bit thinly across 6 to 10 groups.

Digital Mysteries on laptops or tabletops go a long way towards playing the role of the skilful, scaffolding teacher who does just enough to move pupils on, to challenge their thinking or provide a hint.  However the computer and the software don’t replace the teacher; there is still tremendous scope for the teacher to listen and watch, and critique and nudge students’ thinking.  We called our early paper based research ‘Brains on the Table’ as mysteries provided a window on students’ thinking.

Digital mysteries provide enhanced opportunity for teachers to intervene in the development of thinking – but we still need to articulate and share this sophisticated practice knowledge."

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