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Building Stronger Critical Thinking Skills With Mysteries

Who doesn’t love mysteries? They spark our curiosity, leave us eager to learn the answers, and make us feel proud when we figure out a piece of the puzzle. Mysteries are especially popular with kids; there’s a reason why there are so many book series and pieces of media about kids and teenagers who solve mysteries without help from adults.

The good news is that mysteries can also be an excellent educational tool. When boiled down to the essentials, mysteries pose a question, and sleuths find an answer. This is the same principle used in math, science, and even reading comprehension. When educators incorporate the mystery genre into their teaching, they can boost students’ critical thinking skills in a way that is fun and engaging.

Classroom Activities for Critical Thinking With Mysteries

So, how do you incorporate mysteries into your classroom? One of the most popular ways is through classroom games. Set up mysteries for students to solve, pair up investigative teams, or explore practices like evidence collection and interpretation. You can also incorporate programs or lesson plans themed around mysteries. Some ideas that you can work into your classroom include:

  • Fingered Felons. Create a mystery to solve in your own classroom. Hide a “stolen object,” and then have students determine how to find clues that would lead them to the culprit. You can help them make their own fingerprints with the use of tape, paper, and a No. 2 pencil. Then bring the stolen object back, and encourage them to match the fingerprints found on it to the samples collected; they will do this by analyzing unique fingerprint patterns and shapes. Use the Touch N Go website to show kids the different fingerprint patterns. This is a great game for Grades 3 to 8.
  • Mysteries in the Bag. Bring in a bag of random items. Together, with the rest of the class, come up with a story that includes every item in that bag. From there, formulate a mystery that asks, “Who, what, when, where, and why?” It’s a backwards way of forming a mystery, but it will help boost students’ creativity and critical thinking.
  • History’s Mysteries. History’s Mysteries was a program on the History Channel that covered some of the mysteries and strange occurrences throughout history, including the Salem witch trials, alchemy, the Bible, and famous court cases. Have your middle or high school class research and propose mysteries of the past that History’s Mysteries could use as a theme if the show were still on the air.
  • Secret Agent Stan. Secret Agent Stan is an old gumshoe who now works for a national crime solving organization and is having a difficult time adjusting. Recently, he lost his ID number. Using his log from past cases, students from Grades 3-8 can help figure out Stan’s new ID before he gets in trouble with his supervisor.
  • Whodunnit? This is an excellent lesson plan to get elementary students invested in mysteries. It begins with language arts: read a mystery with your class, and discuss the different elements of the mystery: the crime, the clues, the suspects, the sleuths, and the reveals. From there, assign students to write their own mysteries. Once that’s finished, students can incorporate forensic science by making pieces of evidence like lip prints and shoe tracks.
  • Murder Mystery. Engage your students at any age by allowing them to solve a murder mystery. Write out an introduction to the scene of the crime, and come up with clues. Give each student one clue, which they will then share with the class in order to collaborate in solving the mystery. You can break them up into groups and reorder the groups until each student has heard every clue. However, the students will be the ones to lead this game, working together to interpret the clues and solve the mystery.

Why Critical Thinking Matters

It’s probable that only a small percentage of your students — if any — will grow up to become detectives who solve their own mysteries. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from these mystery activities in the classroom. Critical thinking is an invaluable skill that can equip students for just about any career path, as well as help them navigate through daily life. It can be taught on some level in almost any grade and has innumerable benefits. Just a few of those benefits include:

  • Deeper learning. Critical thinking encourages reflective reasoning and stronger analytical skills. Simply put, it helps students get more out of the classroom material. They’re better able to understand, and reading comprehension is likely to rise with higher critical thinking.
  • Internally motivated problem solvers. As your students’ critical thinking grows, they will begin to see the world around them as a puzzle in some ways. They will constantly be on the lookout for creative solutions to problems. These problem-solving and nuanced evaluation skills will serve them in almost every aspect of their lives, as will the self-discipline that comes with this type of motivation.
  • Academic achievement. When students strengthen their critical thinking skills, what they’re doing at the most basic level is developing their core reasoning. This is essential to their understanding of the material the teacher presents in class. Students with strengthened critical thinking tend to perform better in academic settings.
  • Increased creativity. Critical thinking is thinking deeply, considering elements of a problem that might not be immediately obvious or may seem a little out of the box. Creativity functions in much the same way. So, it’s no wonder that critical thinking boosts creativity, whether for a future career or just for a hobby.
  • Future success. Critical thinking prepares students to think more deeply and more strategically in a way that will help them in their future career path. Beyond just work, critical thinking can also help them navigate relationships and life decisions they will have to make long after they leave school.

Gamify Your Classroom

Mysteries can be a fun game, a puzzle for students to solve. The more they solve those puzzles, however, the stronger their critical thinking will become. And the stronger their critical thinking, the more prepared they’ll be to tackle real-life puzzles.

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  • Game-Based Strategies for Language Instruction: Gamify your language classroom! Learn about the theories behind gamification and create games that will help your students learn crucial language skills—and have fun doing it! 

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